South Africa

Déjà vu: When righteous anger and fiery truth returned to the political funeral

By Marianne Merten 28 August 2016

“Zemk’inkomo magwalandini”, loosely translated from isiXhosa as “The cows are being stolen, you cowards”, resounded more than once at the funeral of anti-apartheid activist, premier and Cabinet minister Reverend Makhenkesi Stofile. The saying is heavy with meaning and somewhat convoluted historical ties to the ANC. One of its 1912 founding members, Dr Walter Benson Rubusana – an educator, politician, journalist and linguist, or as former director-general turned businessman Sipho Pityana put it at the funeral, “in today’s lingo, a clever black” – published his first and influential book with that title. This was not the open letters and media interviews of earlier this year that could be smothered amid the procedural technicalities used to dress up political machinations. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

Cabinet ministers, political personalities and thousands of others on Thursday assembled at one of the ANC’s strongholds of Fort Hare University for an official funeral, associated as these are with the niceties and the protocol dictats now synonymous with government. Instead, the political returned to a funeral in a way that has not been seen in years.

Sipho Pityana delivered a stinging rebuke of today’s ANC, and the government it leads – from labelling judges as counter-revolutionary and disdain for Chapter 9 institutions supporting democracy, such as the Public Protector, to the August 2012 police killing of striking Marikana miners, Nkandla, and corruption. And it was a damning critique of how Zuma as head of state and party has conducted himself.

“You don’t, when you are called to account, plunge Parliament into chaos. You don’t plunge constitutional bodies into enemies of the people when they are not,” said Pityana. “You don’t compromise the hope of the downtrodden… to mobilise the ANC into an organisation and a machine to defend you in your own transgressions.”

In one fell swoop, the nefarious cross-pollination of party and state for political purposes was laid bare. Take your pick of issues at hand. The stand-off between the Hawks and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan – dressed up amid official talk of “the law must take its course” despite the lack of charges in law and the Presidency’s technicist assertion that Zuma “does not have powers to stop any investigations into any individual/s”.

Or the Cabinet decision couched in rhetoric of deepening implementation to give Zuma oversight of state-owned entities (SOEs), and potential tenders worth tens of millions of rand in troubled entities. Or the SABC shenanigans, which saw the factionally divided ANC MPs block an inquiry announced by ANC communication subcommittee head Jackson Mthembu, who is also ANC chief whip, amid the public outcry over the public broadcaster’s pre-municipal poll ban on full visuals of community protests. Or the local government election outcome, which had ANC speakers in the recent parliamentary debate in the national interest spin the numbers into a win (the ANC won 161 of the 257 councils) even as the party lost control in four of the seven metros it used to control.

Stofile was that “ilk of cadre” who, said Pityana, when found guilty of financial irregularities during his term as Eastern Cape premier by the 2005 Pillay commission of inquiry, took this outcome on review to court to clear his name. In 2009 the courts set aside the commission’s report as “a nullity and of no force and effect”.

It was a direct reference to the March Constitutional Court judgment which upheld the Public Protector’s findings and remedial action as binding on all – unless taken to court. Neither Zuma nor Parliament approached the judiciary as the saga played itself out in the public discourse, politics and the national legislature, for over two years.

When the court ruled that the constitutional oath of office was broken, said Pityana, “what it means, you are honourable no longer; what it means, you are untrustworthy”.

Neither the president nor Parliament had emerged unscathed in the judgment. Zuma broke his oath of office. The National Assembly had acted “unlawfully” and “inconsistent with the Constitution” by replacing the Public Protector’s finding – that the president needed to repay a reasonable percentage of the “unduly” acquired nonsecurity benefits such as the swimming pool, cattle kraal, chicken run, visitors’ centre and amphitheatre – with its own that absolved Zuma from any liability.

Zuma on April’s Fools Day “apologised” for any confusion and frustration caused. Parliament, where ANC national chairwoman Baleka Mbete is the Speaker, focused on the parts of the judgment that entitled the national legislature to draw up its own processes to fulfil its constitutional mandate of holding the executive accountable. No action was taken as there was no order against the National Assembly, even as the Constitutional Court described Parliament as “the mouthpiece, the eyes and the service-delivery-ensuring machinery of the people. No doubt, it is an irreplaceable feature of good governance in South Africa.” 

Yet the legislative sphere of government remains derelict in its responsibilities. It has failed to replace the six SABC board members who left over recent years under various circumstances, effectively leaving half of the non-executive board positions vacant. If has failed for the past 17 months to fill the constitutionally-established post of intelligence inspector-general after its preferred candidate could not muster sufficient opposition support to meet the two-thirds approval threshold on three occasions when the matter came up for a vote in the House.

But Zuma’s Nkandla “apology” was accepted by the ANC top leaders and with this the branches also received their orders to accept it. In the ANC-led government, it paved the road of business as usual: let government processes unfold became the mantra amid the court-ordered presidential repayment plan.

Ditto, public claims of state capture by the Gupta family and business associates and their “offers” of government jobs as publicly revealed by Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas. There was nothing to investigate further, the ANC NEC decided after it received had the written submissions it requested. In government the line was that no one faced criminal charges.

The Byzantine manoeuvrings of ANC internal politicking meant it was business as usual in party and state. The cows indeed are being stolen.

“Our movement is captured and consequently the state is captured,” said Pityana, pointing out how Stofile, and others, had sent letters of concern to the ANC.

“But guess what, these letters went unanswered.”

But ANC supporters and ordinary citizens countrywide delivered their verdict in the municipal poll, not only in metros but also in the predominately rural provinces of Mpumalanga, Free State and North West whose premiers constitute the “premier league”, firmly entrenched on Zuma’s side in the internal ANC machinations.

The poll was a verdict made in the confidentiality of the voting booth; not everyone has the independent means, or is sufficiently independent of patronage networks, to speak out publicly like those who did so earlier this year, or those doing so again now.

The ANC now has promised a national listening campaign. The ANC announced it was taking collective responsibility for the municipal poll drubbing, as it does for its governance of the country.

The ANC as a party, and as government, has become good at ticking boxes. In Cabinet the plethora of inter-ministerial committees, ostensibly to drive implementation, are little but a tactic to ensure no one sticks their head beyond the parapet. Governance is paralysed.

But the National Development Plan (NDP), the blueprint to reduce poverty, inequality and unemployment by 2030, has a new logo. This rebranding earlier this month came as fundamental disagreements over the economic chapter in the tripartite alliance have not been resolved since the NDP was adopted in 2012. Various tripartite alliance meetings have been called and cancelled and those South African Communist Party (SACP) and labour federation Cosatu leaders who sit on the ANC NEC have proven ineffective.

Still the refrain to work through structures and not to wash the ANC’s dirty linen holds. Critics are, at mildest, called disrespectful and disloyal and in the most harshest as foreign spies, forces for regime change and sell-outs. Such labelling is often echoed in strategically leaked so-called “intelligence dossiers”.

Following Stofile’s funeral, amid criticism in some circles of how it unfolded, the very pro-Zuma ANC Youth League did not disappoint. It branded Pityana “unruly” and “disrespectful” in a statement: “These comrades … should have known better that African value systems and customs do not allow this no matter how one seeks to please his fellow counter-revolutionaries.”

Stofile family spokesman Siphiwe Mpye, via Facebook, issued a dignified rebuttal. “… The service was not hijacked by anyone with any agenda other than to honour a profound and undercelebrated leader, who was deeply concerned about the state of his organisation… All the speakers, who echoed WB Rubusana’s ‘Zemk’inkomo magwalandini’, have the support of the family. I know of nobody in the immediate Stofile family who felt that any speaker ‘stooped low’ in honouring this giant by voicing concerns about our country. To keep mum at this critical moment in our history would have been the real affront to this man’s memory.”

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa largely ditched his prepared eulogy to address the critical issues raised at the funeral which, he said, “feels like a cadres’ forum” and one “to feel the pulse of the membership of the ANC”. Zuma was meant to speak, but went to Kenya on government business instead, perhaps having received intelligence of what was to unfold.

But Ramaphosa’s response was lacklustre, in no large measure because he’s ensnared in the tape of collective responsibility, protocol and factional jockeying. And while he emphasised that the ANC was listening, that he was prepared to take individual responsibility, he also put Zuma first.

“I’m glad the president issued a statement earlier and said that he has confidence in our Minister of Finance. I echo the same confidence…”

With regards to battles in government like that of the Hawks vs Gordhan stand-off, he said:

“We should do it in a way that does not destabilise our government, that does not destabilise our economy, that does not demonstrate to our people that we are a government that is at war with itself.”

The need for a pretty governance picture covering the factional fractures seems to outweigh the urgency of tackling the underlying factors – not on the basis of who holds the numbers as is fashionable in the ANC’s view of democracy as majoritarianism, but out of principle, as the speeches at Stofile’s funeral emphasised.

The next few weeks hold the key to the unfolding battle not only for the soul of the ANC, but also the country. Whichever way it goes remains to be seen, but the impact on South Africa’s constitutional democracy will be profound and lasting – one way or the other. DM

Photo: A screen grab from the SABC’s coverage of Makhenkesi Stofile’s funeral.

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