South Africa

Blaming Zuma for everything: Good Tactics, Terrible Strategy

By Stephen Grootes 17 February 2016

In the last two days almost all opposition parties in Parliament have vented their collective spleen at President Jacob Zuma. There has been almost no direct criticism of the ANC and much of the criticism has been personal and insulting. On one score, this could work well; Zuma has, after all, provided the opposition with a large stash of ammunition. But in the longer run, this could prove a poor investment. Because Zuma will not be President-of-the-ANC-forever and all this invective could one day bite back. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

There is a slightly academic debate underway at present about how many of our problems are there because of President Zuma. Around braais, in taverns, and occasionally at football pitches, Zuma is blamed for everything. And it’s easy to understand why: the man does not appear to understand the economy, and, until recently, had no interest in it. It is embarrassing to have a President who cannot read out numbers. He is the only person on the planet to still believe in the myth of the “firepool” and has instilled patterns of patronage that appear almost unbreakable. And of course, corruption has flourished during his term. And on, and on it goes…

But many, including Professor Steven Friedman, point to the fact that some of our issues started long before Jacob Zuma came along, and will continue regardless of who his successor will be.

But it is almost unarguable that Zuma has, at the very least, aggravated many of our problems. He has appeared to do nothing to fix the economy, came to power with the baggage of alleged corruption hanging over him, and has turned the National Prosecuting Authority into a disaster zone to keep those charges at bay. His political instincts and skill-free approach have turned many a government department and stat-owned entity into a disaster zone.

However, it is impossible to blame Zuma for corruption in the same way that we could blame Thabo Mbeki for AIDS. It was Mbeki, with a few fellow travelers, whose policies led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. With Zuma, we’re talking about a much bigger dynamic that he has perhaps encouraged, but certainly not created.

Why then, the focus on Zuma by opposition parties? There can be no doubt that he is an easy target. Especially at present.

The President’s concessions on Nkandla, his, uhm, complicated personal life, and his general behaviour make him vulnerable to opponents seeking the votes of frustrated, middle-class, urban constituencies. And, there is, of course, the attempt at tarnishing the entire ANC with the same brush.

Mmusi Maimane’s speech, and the line that the gravitational pull of “Planet Zuma is so strong that the entire ANC has been sucked into its orbit”, is designed to make it look as if the entire ANC is like Zuma. And the implication is because ANC members and MPs have allowed themselves to be led, or even controlled, by him, they are complicit.

It appears as if this is the easy option for the DA, a sure-fire win for urban voters, so why think much further?

For Julius Malema, the motivation could be personal. Malema feels, quite rightly, that he was drummed out of the ANC partly by Zuma. While there was a process, in the end it was because he annoyed Zuma that he was kicked out. And this is surely the real justification for his behaviour. Well, that, and a small fact of being a great attention-grabber.

It’s always difficult to gauge when Malema is telling the whole truth. He could be right when he says Fikile Mbalula learned he was going to become a minister from a member of the Gupta family. But Malema also claimed for years that his tax situation was normal, and that he was not being investigated by SARS. We know now that this is not the case and so it is sometimes difficult to take him seriously, no matter what he says about Zuma. And of course there’s always that little Greek tale about a chap called Oedipus.

When Mosouia Lekota walked out of the National Assembly on Thursday night after an eloquent attack on Zuma, his minute political entourage trailing after him, it was hard to remember the real reason for the formation of Cope in the first place; Mbeki’s recall. Lekota, to an extent, is still fighting the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane Conference.

This means that for the parties formed out of the ANC, the splits (or splinters, in the case of Cope), attacking Zuma may make their leaders feel better. But it also means the attacks are not the result of hard political calculation. It is emotion rather that plays a role.

There is a risk to this tactic for opposition parties. In 2006 and 2007 it may have seemed impossible to believe that the ANC could ever campaign against Mbeki’s record. But, in a sense, that is what it did. Zuma himself, just before Polokwane, said “we need to declare a state of emergency on AIDS and crime”.

And, to be fair, this is what the ANC led by Zuma tried to do. He promised to listen to the Left, and that is also what he appeared to do (In 2009, the party claimed its election manifesto was a “jump to the left”) …but it turned there’s no such thing.

So, whoever takes over from Zuma, in just less than two years from now, could apply the same logic. Considering both Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma have never been accused of taking money for themselves corruptly, this may provide them with an opportunity to signal that they will be very different from ex-President Zuma. It may seem odd now, but in 2006 it seemed impossible to think that the ANC would try to find ways to signal it would take policy positions opposite to President Mbeki’s.

This could mean the effort opposition parties have put into trashing Zuma might be wasted. All of the shouting about firepools, gravity walls and almost anything Malema has said could mean nothing. It is entirely possible that the opposition parties have massively underestimated the ANC’s ability to change, sometimes renewing itself, sometimes just changing course, leaving the opposition parties scratching their heads and cursing their own practice of single-issue criticism. The post-Zuma ANC could shrug Zuma’s legacy in a one simple move, declaring the ‘new’ ANC would correct the mistakes of the past, and sail into the bright new future, not unlike the way JJ Abrams invented the entire new universe to save the Star Trek franchise.

Never underestimate the power of a hundred-year-old brand.

Winning elections is about much more than simply attacking such an obviously easy target that is the current leader of the ANC. DM

Photo: South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma answers questions in parliament in Cape Town August 6, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings.


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