On Wednesday, there was yet another unsuccessful attempt to stage mass demonstrations against the president in the country’s main cities. The “Zuma Must Go” campaign, initiated by religious and civil society leaders after the Constitutional Court ruled that the president had violated the Constitution, did not live up to the initial hype of a mass uprising against South Africa’s elected leader. The protest leaders say this is just the start of a mass action campaign to ensure that Zuma leaves office, but clearly South Africa is not heading the way of its BRICS sister Brazil’s mass rebellion against the president, Dilma Rousseff.
While the small protests were taking place in Johannesburg and Cape Town on Wednesday, Zuma was leading the official Freedom Day celebration in Giyani, Limpopo, at an event attended by thousands of people. Although this was a state event, the attendance was seen as affirmation of Zuma’s leadership. Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa boldly declared that Zuma would complete his term in 2019 despite calls for him to step down.
“No one is going to remove President Zuma from office… President Zuma and his government have been elected and are expected to go out and renew the mandate of 2019 and it is going to be so,” Mthethwa said.
Zuma also referred to the matter in his speech, but appeared to be giving advice to someone else. “What is important is that we should humble ourselves. If you were elected at one point and people no longer want you, humble yourself,” Zuma told the crowd, according to News24. “Accept it so that change will come if people believe we need change now.”
It could not have escaped Zuma that the calls to step down or “do the right thing” are directed at him so he has not explained why he is not taking his own advice. It was important however to follow proper procedures to remove a leader and to ensure that democratic institutions are respected, Zuma said without a hint of irony, even invoking the Constitution he was found to have violated. “Our citizens’ faith in our Constitution [and] democracy has never been stronger. We have deepening our understanding of democracy with time,” Zuma said.
Then on Thursday, Zuma bestowed national orders on people who had done exceptional service to the country and humanity. He did so as “Grand Patron of National Orders”. This should be a moment of pride for the nation, when citizens and foreign nationals who played an outstanding role in society are recognised through the bestowal of the country’s highest honours.
Although there were many worthy and notable recipients, including Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, struggle stalwarts and the President of Chile Michelle Bachelet Jeria, the event was a low-key affair. The lack of public interest could not be a reflection on the recipients but perhaps the charade entailed in a person who brought dishonour on the country bestowing the awards as the “Grand Patron”.
Again Zuma seemed not to see the irony in uttering the following words: “By the power vested in me in terms of Section 84 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, I now confer the Order of Mendi, the Order of Ikhamanga, the Order of the Baobab, the Order of Luthuli, the Order of Mapungubwe and the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo to the distinguished persons indicated.”
But what is Zuma supposed to do under the circumstances? He has ignored the chorus of calls for him to act in the interests of the country and step down, and the ANC has shut down discussion on the matter. He therefore has to perform his duties, as the Constitution requires him to do. According to his schedule of public engagements announced by the presidency, Zuma will address the national Workers’ Day celebrations in Mamelodi, Pretoria, attend the Presidency budget vote debate in Parliament on Wednesday and Thursday, and undertake a state visit to Qatar later in May. He is also scheduled to answer questions in the National Assembly on 17 May.
Zuma’s appearances in Parliament have been full of commotion since he begun fobbing off accountability on the Nkandla matter two years ago. They now require high-level security operations and almost always result in shouting matches between the presiding officers and opposition MPs. After the Constitutional Court hearing, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema declared that his party no longer recognised Zuma as president and would “physically remove him” should he try to address Parliament. It therefore remains unclear how the EFF will handle Zuma’s upcoming appearances in the National Assembly.
It is not a desirable situation for a legitimately and democratically elected president to be threatened with violence and to constantly face condemnation. It is also not desirable for a president to be distrusted as he is accused of acting in the interests of his friends and family rather than that of the country. It is perhaps inappropriate to view Zuma’s state visits with suspicion following allegations that he had transported money out of the country on behalf of the Gupta family and after military co-operation between South Africa and Saudi Arabia was confirmed only after images of the president touring a weapons factory emerged.
But the country also does not know what next to expect of our president. Who could have believed that he was capable of sabotaging our economy until he offhandedly did so in December when he fired Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister? And how is it possible that even now Zuma does not appreciate how devastating his actions were and continues to blame the fall of the currency and financial losses on the markets?
With Zuma’s immunity to criticism and self-reflection, and his lack of awareness of his ruinous conduct, there is always the danger that he can act irresponsibly again. And there are always questions that will hang over him.
Why is he suddenly so interested in visiting the Gulf? What and who is transported on his jet? Where does it stop? When will he make his next Cabinet reshuffle? Who will be removed and why? Who will be appointed and why? What is the president negotiating on our behalf? With whom? Who has Zuma’s ear? How much does his Cabinet know?
On Thursday, South Africa started its 23rd year of freedom yet our young nation seems fatigued and weather-beaten. Instead of lauding our progress and achievements, the national dialogue remains centred on the travails of one person.
On Friday he will be in the news again when judgment is delivered in the spy tapes case. Zuma’s relationship with his financiers will again generate debate and his compromised reputation will continue to tarnish the Office of the President.
If Zuma faces the prospect of a corruption trial again, the nation goes on trial with him as he is our elected leader. If he again evades accountability for his actions, we remain burdened with a leader we cannot dare to trust for the next three years.
Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma arrives at a plenary session of the Africa-South America Summit in Margarita Island September 27, 2009. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi urged African and South American leaders on Saturday to strive for a new world order countering Western economic dominance. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
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