If there is one thing President Jacob Zuma has a lifetime of experience in, it’s the fight-back. More than anyone else who has ever held high office in this country, Zuma has the built-in instinct to fight hard when his back is to the wall. As pressure mounts over the Nkandla ruling and the Guptas’ influence, he is now beginning to display this God-given skill once again. But no one plays fair in desperate conflicts: there are no little niceties like rules, laws and manners. The weapons in this latest of Zuma’s fights are likely to be race and the resources of government. Time to get worried. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
On Sunday, just a day after telling the nation that he “apologised” (sort of) for the way he had dealt with the Nkandla issue, and much more important, signalling that he was not going to leave, Zuma headed off for KwaZulu-Natal. And he went, of course, not to a bustling urban area like Ethekwini, but to Melmoth. There, at a government event, which reporters say involved food parcels, he started to state his case to the constituency that has supported him the strongest.
Some reports have focused on the fact that he told people they must register to vote to “counteract the votes of whites”. Independent Newspapers reported that he told people, “The vote is important for black people because they are suffering. It is also important for white people for their own reasons.”
He then went further, promising his audience that if they voted, it would be possible for them to reclaim land that was taken during apartheid, and the colonial era before that. One report suggests that he said government would be able to fast-track land restitution if they voted.
Other reports in The Times newspaper suggests that he referred to himself as a shepherd, and that the people should let him lead them.
It was always predictable that Zuma would go to KwaZulu-Natal first. It is not just the heartland of his support, it is actually the place where he feels most comfortable. The votes from this province were able to shore up his position as president of the ANC, and then the country. While he has been ANC leader, the party’s share of the vote in KwaZulu-Natal has increased dramatically (while the IFP’s share has declined even more dramatically).
And of course, a more rural area suits him down to the ground. He can be assured that there is not that much independent media, and that many people might only have a diet of Hlaudi Motsoaneng’s SABC to inform them.
His reference to race is a sign, a worrying sign, that he is going to play dirty in this fight. In a way, he has no choice. In rural areas there is often less integration than in urban ones. Zuma has to ensure that he looks strong, and for that to happen, the ANC has to do well in the local government elections with him strongly at the helm. And one of the biggest problems the party is going to have is actually turnout. Most minorities are probably going to vote, largely to express themselves over Zuma. That is not necessarily the case for people who used to vote for the ANC, but who now don’t feel the urge quite so strongly. What Zuma is trying to do here is to use race to push them into the voting booths.
At the same time, it is surely abusing poor people to use government funds to provide food parcels to some. This indicates that Zuma is not going to be above using government money to save himself. There are various constituencies that could well benefit, or be bought off, through government money. What may be food parcels in rural KZN could well be some industrial incentive, or BEE code change for some business people.
One wonders how far Zuma would be prepared to go here. If he did not have to face the figure of Pravin Gordhan at the Treasury, would he start to promise bigger social grants? It would guarantee him popularity, but would also bankrupt us as a nation faster than you can say “Nuclear Power Build Plan”.
Zuma has done this sort of thing before a crucial ANC meeting before. For him, it’s an old tactic to “greet the people” just before some important gathering. Everyone will see images of him being mobbed, and celebrating, and yes, singing and dancing as if he hasn’t a care in the world. It gives his step a bounce before he walks into the meeting.
However, all of this is simply not going to play that well across the entire nation. Middle-class people in urban areas are so fed-up that there is probably nothing he could do to win them back. And this kind of tactic is going to turn them off even more. They are likely to see the buying of rural votes as a degrading ritual. And some may even see it for what it is, an insult to poor black people to think that their democratic right can be bought away from them in such a crass and open manner.
Then there will be others who will be reminded of the Constitutional Court’s injunction last week that when it comes to the President: “The promotion of national unity and reconciliation falls squarely on his shoulders.” They could well argue that in fact Zuma, by using this tactic of naked racial political campaigning, is clearly ignoring their definition of his duty. They could go further, and ask if in fact he has even read, or understood, the judgment at all.
What makes it all worse is that Zuma is not actually telling the truth. There is no link between the number of votes the ANC gets and the pace of land reform. The party has been in charge of this project for over 20 years, and still allocates only a small percentage of the national budget to the growing problem. And to keep pushing the dates back to before apartheid is going to benefit first King Goodwill Zwelithini, and second, in the end, the San. But barely anyone else, because while land reform is just, and important, the further back you go, the more trouble you are going to make for yourself, and everyone else. There is no formal starting point on which we could all agree.
All of this is a massive problem for the likes of the Gauteng ANC. And they are possibly expressing their own rejection of Zuma’s tactics through comments by provincial Premier and Gauteng Deputy Chairman David Makhura. He said at a memorial service on Monday that loyalty to the country was “more important than loyalty to the ANC”. He also said that the party needed to listen to “the people” rather than just its leaders.
While those comments could have been chosen deliberately, in that there are a number of ways to interpret them, it seems to be a strong signal that he, and his province, are deeply unhappy with Zuma, and his response to the Nkandla judgment. Makhura could also say, perhaps with a straight face, that he has no options. If the ANC wants to retain power in Gauteng, it is going to have to play it this way.
Zuma of course still has control of the security agencies and the criminal justice system. This means that if he could, he could try to forgo some aspects of democratic governance altogether.
Already the offices of the Helen Suzman Foundation have been robbed, just days after it started its legal action against the appointment of Hawks head Mthandazo Ntlemeza. On Sunday night Julius Malema complained that he had been followed and harassed by 12 police officers with machine guns. That kind of thing could be a brutal display of the worst of our politics, the politics of threatened violence and naked displays of power. Or they could be simple coincidences. But with the number of “coincidences” on the obvious rise, people are getting very concerned indeed.
One of the problems of dealing with someone who has their back to the wall is that they are very erratic. They lash out. Predictability goes out the window. They turn vicious.
This could be the symbol of a new phase for the Zuma Presidency. One in which there are more shocks than before, where attempts to cling to power become more desperate, with more dangerous language and even more dangerous actions. It is not time to eat popcorn. It is time to be prepared. DM
Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma (L) shares a joke with a family member during his traditional wedding to Tobeka Madiba, his fifth wife, at the village of Nkandla in northern KwaZulu-Natal, January 4, 2010. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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