The relationship that President Jacob Zuma has with democracy has been questioned of late. It is under his watch that cell phone jammers were first used in the National Assembly, that instruments like the Protection of State Information Act have been pushed through, and armed police used to clear out the entire caucus of a political party in Parliament. Immediately after which he laughed. But his recent statement that he believes the ANC comes first, before the country, has rung the loudest alarm bells. And his latest PR attempt to fix his statement will not quiet them. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
On Monday, with no warning, President Jacob Zuma took a rare step of issuing a statement on the ANC’s website. (Presumably he did not want to use the machinery of the Presidency for this one.) He did so, even as the ANC spokespeople had always said that his statements to the ANC’s KwaZulu-Natal Congress were only an ANC matter. It is quite an odd move by Zuma: The fuss over his comment, made nine days before, had started to die down, the media was focused on Paris, and everyone had almost forgotten what he had said. It could have been just another serious gaffe, the latest in a long list of things the urban-based commercial media would hold against him, and nothing more.
Perhaps someone, somewhere, felt that it could not be left, because of the way that tricky demographic, the black urban voter, had reacted to his original comments, and felt an explanation was needed. Maybe, there were some in the ANC who felt that actually his statement could not be left there, because it simply did not reflect well on the party, and they knew it would be used against them to claim the leader of the ANC simply doesn’t care about the country when the next election campaign starts, which is soon.
And yet, if they hoped this statement would rectify that image, they are sorely mistaken.
Zuma says first, that “South Africa needs a united, strong, cohesive and effective African National Congress. It is in this context that I said at the KwaZulu-Natal ANC conference on the 7th of November 2015 that the ANC comes first”. Presumably, what he means is that without the ANC, South Africa is nothing. Really? If the ANC disappeared tomorrow in a puff of counter-revolutionary smoke, would the geographic space that is currently inhabited by a curious mixture of history disappear? Surely not. The ANC would be replaced by something else, something different, but with similar hallmarks. But the country wouldn’t disappear, and neither would the freedoms the ANC helped to win for its people.
Zuma goes on to say that “I love the ANC. It does not mean I love my country less. But, I know no other life than life in the ANC. The ANC is my life”. It seems with this statement he is putting the ANC and South Africa on the same level. Fine. But that is not what he said in KwaZulu-Natal. There he said that “if you ask me, the ANC comes first”. It cannot be that, in his mind, both are correct. Either he meant what he said then, or he means what he says now.
There must also be some serious questions raised about whether in fact he is being honest when he says he knows no other life than life in the ANC. If the party were in fact his life, it would make sense to presume that he would govern in the best possible way, for both the good of the party, and the good of the country. This is demonstrably not true. Even if we remove the entire economic question from the equation for just a moment, how can he possibly say that he has been governing, say in the criminal justice cluster, only for the good of the country and the party?
Think of his appointment of Riah Phiyega as the National Police Commissioner. Or his protection of Advocate Nomgcobo Jiba, or his entire treatment of the National Prosecuting Authority. Or the fact that he left the Special Investigating Unit without a permanent head for over eighteen months. Or the way he dealt with the Zuma Spy Tapes Case. Or the issue of Richard Mdluli. And that’s just for starters, within one of the clusters. In all of these cases, there has been the use of politics, and a lack of objectivity, which has rebounded both on him, the country, and the party he proclaims to love. And if Zuma has no life outside the ANC, what about the Guptas? Why were they able to land at an air force base and suffer no consequence? Just that one fact alone surely proves that in fact he does have a life outside of the ANC.
Zuma makes what looks like a fascinating concession about the state of the ANC when he claims that it needs to “fulfill its historic role”, in that it needs to “enhance its determination….to fight negative tendencies and restore the core values and principles of our movement – unity, selflessness, sacrifice, collective leadership, humility, honesty, discipline, hard work, internal debates, constructive criticism and self-criticism and mutual respect.”
It may seem like a long list, but there is so much that is revealing about Zuma that it is worth going through it value by value. Zuma says that the first core value to be restored is “unity”. From the one person who could have stopped the recall of President Thabo Mbeki, and didn’t lift a finger to save him? From the person who oversaw the sidelining of Kgalema Motlanthe, or the entire Gauteng ANC, or the expulsion of Julius Malema? And, more seriously for the ANC, from the first person to come to power as national leader of the ANC through a ‘slate’ system? That would be the same system of leaders running together as tickets against each other that has done serious and lasting damage to the party. A system that now holds sway over the party to the extent that all of his own pleas for people to stop using it have been ignored.
Next on the list is “selflessness”. From the occupant of Nkandla? From a person who claims to not have noticed that so much government money was being spent on his home? And if, hypothetically, we accept his claim that he just didn’t notice and owes government nothing, can someone who caused Schabir Shaik to spend R400,000 on what was called his “traditional residential village estate at Nkandla” really be considered to be “selfless”?
Zuma also talks about “sacrifice”. Here, to a point, he is on much stronger ground. He did, after all, spend ten years on Robben Island, which must have been an awful experience. Zuma’s role in the Struggle is beyond question. But his track record on sacrifice after coming to power is harder to explain. How does someone who appears to want a new R4bn jet get to call themselves “selfless”?
He then suggests that there must be “collective leadership” in the ANC. It’s worth mentioning what happened to Mbeki here again. But more importantly for today’s purposes, look at what happens to his critics within the ANC. First they are isolated, and then just removed. Malema, out, Kgalema Motlanthe ignored; Pallo Jordan finds himself without his self-bestowed honorific, and any other critic form the older generation declared sore loser. And if you go through the National Executive Committee list, it’s hard to find more than ten people who are not avid Zuma supporters. The leaderships of the provinces that opposed Zuma at Mangaung, with the exception of Gauteng, were disbanded.
That is not collective leadership. That is just conquest.
When it comes to “discipline” there are arguments both ways. Zuma is incredibly disciplined in some ways, former intelligence chiefs of banned organisations tend to be like that. He does not drink alcohol, and has the kind of control of his emotions in political situations that his opponents can only dream of. However, in other matters, this discipline is lacking. It was Judge Johan van der Merwe who paraphrased Kipling to utter “And if you can control your body and your sexual urges, then you are a man, my son”.
For Zuma to talk about “hard work” is completely fair; no one has worked harder on the campaign trail than he. There is a reason that the ANC has done so well inKwaZulu-Natal of late, he has been doing campaign stop after campaign stop, rally after rally, walkabout after walkabout. On this issue, he certainly sets an example that many ANC members would do well to follow, whether it be in politics, or in other matters.
However, his track record on the next three themes, “internal debates, constructive criticism and self-criticism” is more mixed. Certainly, under Zuma the ANC has, to its credit, kept up its tradition of robust, even stinging criticism of itself. In policy documents it has almost been more critical of itself than its external critics. Despite that, and his own comments about how the party is losing members, there seems to be very little on the table to turn things around. And no desire to implement the resolutions that were adopted.
And then we have the final issue, “mutual respect”. It was Zuma who first introduced the idea of insults into the ANC, and harnessed them, in his fight against Mbeki. On his watch Malema was used to insult Mbeki, to insult Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, it was the MK Military Veterans League who told Kader Asmal to “go to the nearest cemetery and die”. And then, lest we forget, there are Zuma’s comments to both Motlanthe and former President director-general Frank Chikane, at that very same KZN ANC conference. Motlanthe was “politically bankrupt”, and told Chikane to stay “out of politics”. Hardly a show of mutual respect, indeed.
Time and time again the question has been asked about whether the ANC would give up power if it were to lose an election. Zuma’s comments that the party is above the country suggest that under his leadership, it would not. His statement just appears to show a man who does not believe the normal rules of politics apply to himself. This is a message of “do as I preach, not as I do”. And, in the longer run, it can only damage the party he proclaims to love so much. DM
Read more (a very selected list, considering the reading you could do):
- Zuma’s actual statement
- Mail and Guardian Report on the judgment in the Zuma Rape Trial
- Ranjeni Munusamy on Zuma, the Plot, and the Day he Lost it
- More from this author on the SIU and the NPA
Photo: Forgive us, Mr Bond, James Bond.