South Africa

South Africa

Struggle time again: The raw politics of funerals and memorial lectures

Struggle time again: The raw politics of funerals and memorial lectures

Calls for unity in the ANC and its alliance partners cannot mean closing ranks against corruption and factionalism to support a leader who betrayed the movement’s values. “It is not a call for disunity to identify the problem,” said South African Communist Party (SACP) Second Deputy General Secretary Solly Mapaila at Sunday’s funeral of Tumisang Bojabotsheha, political adviser to the ANC chief whip, long-standing ANC parliamentary caucus researcher, and former SACP leader, teacher and unionist. Restating the SAPC’s call on President Jacob Zuma to resign, he pointed to state capture and the use of state-owned entities as the “Guptas’ spaza shop”. Afterwards Mapaila said it was not personal: “This funeral is a political funeral. It is something even he himself would have articulated.” By MARIANNE MERTEN.

The return of the political funeral, widespread as recently as the 1980s, came with the August 2016 funeral of ANC stalwart, Eastern Cape premier and Cabinet minister Reverend Makhenkesi Stofile at the University of Fort Hare. Stinging rebukes of today’s ANC as party and in government were delivered, steeped in historical ties and symbolic meaning related to one of the ANC’s 1912 founding members Dr Walter Benson Rubusana’s “Zemk’inkomo magwalandini”, loosely translated from isiXhosa as “The cows are being stolen, you cowards”.

Then it emerged that Stofile had written of his concerns to the powers that are at ANC Luthuli House, without receiving any response. Fast-forward to March 2017, when at the memorial service to struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada, former ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe not only read out Uncle Kathy’s letter to President Jacob Zuma calling on him to step down given the unprecedented levels of criticism, concern and tensions, but that also this letter went unanswered.

Last month, unprecedented public protests, first of South African citizens and then political opposition parties and their supporters, unfolded after Zuma in a midnight Cabinet reshuffle fired former finance minister Pravin Gordhan – charges from a bizarre Hawks probe against him were dropped in late 2016 – and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas. Amid rising tensions within the ANC and its alliance partners, both the SACP and trade union federation Cosatu have called on Zuma to resign. ANC veterans have made similar calls.

On Sunday the message that the ANC’s values and principles are being betrayed – and that a decision on the character of the governing party is pending – again rang out in the hall of a school in the northernmost suburbs of Cape Town at Bojabotsheha’s funeral.

Mapaila talked of the “fast spreading political and moral malaise” of the ANC, which had stalled the National Democratic Revolution, tripartite alliance-speak for transforming South Africa:

The reason for stalling… some of the leading cadres have betrayed its mission, therefore are unable to give it energy apart from shouting petty slogans,” he said, later adding: “If we have a leader betraying these values (of the ANC and alliance), why do you follow such a leader? What are you following?”

If a leader led troops to defeat by enemy forces, said Mapaila in a clear reference to Zuma who, however, was not named, such a leader would have been replaced. But right now people are saying “he’s a leader even when he has lost it” and state capture continued. “Corruption is the new normal. If that’s the new normal, then we cannot self-correct.”

ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu paid tribute to Bojabotsheha, but also tackled the governing party’s troubles. “Eleven-million people voted for the ANC, not to be cosy with members of the executive,” said Mthembu to shouts of “Amandla! (Power)” from the mourners. “We might not have succeeded to do so to the best of our ability, but we are not going to relax until we have done so.”

Mthembu cited the recent parliament SABC inquiry that had delivered a hard-hitting report into the financially and governance troubled public broadcaster. But Parliament’s response to the Nkandla saga has remained a blot, as the national legislature absolved Zuma from any repayment in a parallel process the Constitutional Court in late March 2016 found invalid and unconstitutional. The ANC national working committee (NWC) closed ranks around Zuma after he publicly apologised for the “frustration and confusion” caused.

We will never be found wanting again and have another Nkandla on us. We’ll never take a wrong decision as people representing people of South Africa… It will never happen again,” Mthembu said.

Outside the funeral, the ANC Chief Whip explained that there was no contradiction that MPs might contradict ministers from their own party, as this happened in advanced democracies.

That we need to work towards. MPs must hold the executive to account even if they come from the same party,” said Mthembu. “Do we have the stamina to do so without fear or favour? We must. If we don’t we will create disregard for the organisation we so love… We’ll be failing our people, our country, the Constitution.”

The motion of no confidence in Zuma, postponed pending a Constitutional Court hearing on May 15 and judgment on a secret ballot for this vote, may just be the first test. To date all indications are that the ANC parliamentary caucus has closed ranks around Zuma following the ANC NWC’s acceptance of his midnight reshuffle as presidential prerogative – despite public contradiction of this reason from within the tripartite alliance.

With funerals and memorial lectures central to the contest of the ANC’s heart and soul, the state of ANC “mismanagement” also emerged during former finance minister Trevor Manuel’s lecture in honour of the late Kader Asmal, veteran ANC member and former Cabinet minister.

Manuel told the gathering at the University of Cape Town that Asmal had warned the party about electing Zuma as party president at its 2007 Polokwane national conference and again in 2009, according to the Weekend Argus. And it was a tragedy the land question was mired in populist calls – a reference to expropriation without compensation, as outlined by Zuma in his address to the National House of Traditional Leaders in March, when the Constitution held the required tools to return land to those disposed black South Africans through a law of general application, SAfm quoted Manuel as saying.

But funerals are also the platform to counter criticism and protests, as did National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete, who is also ANC national chairperson, at Saturday’s funeral of 16 of the 18 school children killed in a horror accident near Bronkhorstspruit.

People that we did not know knew how to toyi-toyi … marching out there saying Zuma must go. We are surprised that they even know how to [march],” News24 quotes Mbete as saying at the funeral in Verena, Mpumalanga. “We as the governing party, which is going to continue to rule, we will not disappoint Oliver Tambo, we will not disappoint Nelson Mandela.”

Unlike the argument at Sunday’s funeral that to question did not amount to disunity but was in line with the ANC values and principles, Mbete at Saturday’s funeral had a different take, one that wants disagreements to be settled inside the house:

The alliance is important. South Africa needs it. We cannot as leaders destroy it because these little children need the alliance so that when they get older, they will find it intact and take the country forward, not back….”

And there have also been tightly orchestrated and heavily secured public opportunities for Zuma as head of state, and ANC president, to tackle some of the fractiousness and showcase delivery by the governing ANC. It’s not always worked, as shown by the booing at the May Day event, and the abandoning of Sunday’s planned presidential address at Vuwani, Limpopo, where a demarcation dispute that started ahead of the 2016 local government elections continues to cause tensions. Having waited for hours, residents there became restless and, according to SAfm, the presidency said plans for Zuma to speak were jettisoned due to security concerns and because the people were “not representative” of the community.

But reading the mood inside the ANC, while strategising for the long term also beyond December’s ANC national elective conference, is a fraught business regardless of stage-managed events, funerals and memorial lectures.

ANC Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is deemed to have launched his ANC presidency bid at the Chris Hani memorial lecture in Uitenhage, Eastern Cape, where he talked of a “crisis” in reference to state capture and factionalism. It was a significantly blunter response than his comments at the Stofile funeral taking place as the Hawks were still investigating Gordhan. Government should not be seen to be at war with itself, Ramaphosa said in response to the mood of the funeral, endorsing Zuma’s then public statement of confidence in Gordhan:

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…”

In the neckbreaking pace of politics and politicking ahead of an ANC elective conference, tensions and divisions in the governing party and its alliance remain shifting sands. When looking for indications of how it all unfolds amid the official ban on campaigning and calls for unity, funerals and memorial lectures seem a good space. DM

Photo: Special Official Funeral of Reverend Makhenkhesi Stofile, 25 August 2016. (GCIS)

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