South Africa

Right of Reply: Our challenges are much bigger than our obsession with President Jacob Zuma

By Sipho Seepe 23 January 2018

Many commentators have warned about the country’s slippage into group think. Group think breeds intellectual intolerance. Unfortunately this is what describes the state of affairs of the South African public discourse. By SIPHO SEEPE.

Those in the know argue that the greatest tribute anyone can bestow to one’s work is to quarrel with it. It is this regard that one welcomes JJ Tabane’s valiant attempt to respond to my article. Such quarrels are necessary for any thriving democracy. They are even more important when in a country that is captive to group think and hoodwinked into accepting easy answers and easy solutions to complex socio-economic challenges.

Going against the grain exposes one to all forms of hazards. One expects to be subjected to all sorts of insult, ostracisation and even total banishment. But all these are a poor substitute to engagement and to proffering a counter argument.

Many commentators have warned about the country’s slippage into group think. Group think breeds intellectual intolerance. Unfortunately this is what describes the state of affairs of the South African public discourse. But this has been long in the making. However, the intolerance in our country comes more from those who claim to be champions of constitutionalism and freedom of expression and less from the usual suspect – government.

Writing about this unquestioned totalitarian tendency, political scientist Steven Friedman (Business Day 12/12/12) could not have described it better in observing that:

We may be the only country in the world in which freedom of speech is restricted not by the government but by its opponents… The problem is not strident criticism of those who govern us; that is an obvious sign of democratic health. It is that only one opinion is expressed and alternative views are driven from the debate.”

Friedman continues in pointing out that:

Those who express more balanced views will not be physically muzzled — but they will be denounced as government lackeys and embarrassed into silence… To label criticism of the government as a sign of independence when everyone is doing it is clearly absurd. Nor does it cost anyone anything to voice this criticism — no one who joins in is in the least danger of being forced to make a sacrifice. So strong has the current group think become that it is those who challenge it who are taking risks.”

Friedman’s observation regarding the abysmal state of public discourse applies also when it involves the person of Jacob Zuma. Suggesting that Jacob Zuma is not the devil incarnate that he is made out to be drives the chattering classes and some of our clergy into some sort of intellectual and spiritual paroxysm.

But all of this is part of a bigger plan of distracting the country from dealing with the real challenge of the country – poverty, unemployment, racial economic inequalities, everyday racism, institutional racism, land hunger, and lack of social transformation. Dumisane Hlophe could not have been blunt in his observation that the obsession with President Zuma; the person, is perhaps the greatest distraction of our times.

In his article, Zuma bashing takes our eyes off the ball (Sunday Independent, 19 July 2015), Hlophe writes:

The next generation of black people will not take kindly to the current generation. This is because it will still be in the economic margins, in the doldrums, poor, and living from hand to mouth. Then it will ask this generation: ‘what have you been doing all these years of freedom and democracy?’ Sheepishly, this generation will respond: ‘We were busy with Nkandla; looking (out) for Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and checking whether other blacks have degree certificates or not’.”

For Hlophe the Zuma-bashing is nothing short of a conspiracy. He continues:

Blacks are both in the margins of this economy, and also in the periphery of the discussions of their economic well-being in terms of ownership, management, growth and sustainability. South Africa’s public discourse is conspired to maintain the apartheid economy. This is done partly by keeping the economic transformation discourse away from the majority…. Nkandla remains a crucial matter of accountability. But in a society seeking greater black ownership, participation, and management of the economy, it ought not to overshadow a progressive public discourse on BEE.”

But finding easy solutions and scapegoats is the South African way. It is for this reason that we could easily buy into notions of Rainbowism and a miracle nation.

In this regard, the lynch mob comprising of strange bedfellows could do well to heed Jonny Steinberg’s admonition (Business Day, 18/09/2013) that:

It is tempting to dream that the problem begins and ends with Zuma, and that a new leader — a man called Cyril, for instance — will one day walk in with a golden wand and wave the bad times away. I am not for a moment saying that Zuma is the best the ANC can do. But it is nonetheless worth asking how free Cyril Ramaphosa or anyone else would be to lead the ANC. For it seems to me that the organisation has immunised itself against leadership…. We forget that it was Mbeki, not Zuma, who destroyed the justice system’s independence”.

My article was a shorthand prose intended to raise the issues articulated above. In the frenzy to find a scapegoat for all of our problems, it is tempting to drive critical issues under the carpet.

The article sought to, inter alia, disrupt the monotonous monologue that defines the public discourse when it involves the person of President Jacob Zuma, to remind the ANC NEC of the consequences of rushing unthinkingly into action that might undermine the organization. The article also sought to expose that some of those calling for the hasty removal of the incumbent President could have ulterior motives that may prove inimical to the ANC’s own political and material interests.

Finally my article sought to advice the ANC to look a gift horse in the mouth. It pointed out that the course of action suggested by the ANC’s historical enemies may lead to the ANC undermining its very own conference resolution on organizational unity. And that a weaker ANC will be unable to implement the far reaching conference resolutions. Incidentally, these are issues that the new leadership of the ANC has been grappling with. As a matter of fact, the President of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa was at pains to caution against a new tendency in which external forces seek to parachute and force certain items into the ANC’s own programmes. Interestingly so, but not surprising, most of those items have little to do with the historic injustices and continuing daily hardships that are experienced by the African majority.

Unfortunately, in his response to my article Tabane couldn’t see the proverbial wood for the trees. He disingenuously focused on minute details and lost sight of the overall picture. He missed the essence of what the above political analysts and scientists have sought to highlight.

I will not deal with the motives of the opposition save to say that no sitting President of the ANC has ever enjoyed their support. The opposition’s sudden love for both President Mandela and Mbeki is self-serving.

I, however, have sympathy with Tabane’s sense of disquiet with regard to my reference of false prophets. Perhaps my religious sense is seen as dubious. I come from the teaching of the scripture that warns the clergy not to be consumed by hatred. In this regard Romans 12: 19-21 is apposite. It reads:

Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Forgiveness and guidance is at the heart of Christianity. When confronted about how many times he should forgive his errant brother, Jesus Christ advises (Mathew 18: 21-22):

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered: “I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!”

Even so, the Bible is explicit on how to counsel errant brethren. It cautions against doing so by shouting on the rooftops. Perhaps Tabane gets his spiritual inspiration from reading a different script. Tabane’s argument that one’s past should be used as a defence is poor and inconsistent. If it were so, there would be few people who would be able to match Jacob Zuma’s heroism in the struggle.

With regard to the Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, I would suggest that Tabane direct his vitriol to Rev Fr Maieane M. Khaketla. The Reverend’s rebuke is stinging. Writing an open letter to Anglicans, he said:

As an Anglican and a priest in God’s Holy Church, I hung my head in shame and utter disgust as I watched the ‘sermon’ delivered by the Archbishop of Cape Town and Metropolitan of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, The Most Rev Dr Cecil Thabo Makgoba, in St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town on Christmas Eve. When one expected to hear a sermon on the Baby in the manger, the shepherds watching their flocks or the angelic host singing Gloria In Exelsis Deo, the Archbishop raved and ranted about how Cyril Ramaphosa should immediately remove Jacob Zuma. It was abominable to say the least. What made it most disgusting was that it was shouted from a pulpit, where the gospel of the Christ child should preached…. On what authority is the Archbishop giving orders to the ANC?”

But the honorable reverend did not end there. He sought to expose the hypocrisy of the clergy. He pointed out:

He (Makgoba) talks about ‘Zuma and his cohorts who have made the SA Treasury their own’. What does he say about his friends and fellow bishops who are abusing church funds collected from poor widows’ mites? There are numerous cases of corruption, fraud and sexual abuse against bishops, which the Archbishop has conveniently ignored. There is a cry throughout the province of maladministration of dioceses, abuse of church funds, and he is saying nothing about that. Hundreds of Anglican priests are suffering under cruel bishops but are afraid to speak out because of fear of victimisation. He is aware of the plight of these priests but is conveniently ignoring them. As a shepherd, father and pastor, Archbishop Makgoba is a dismal failure. As he is calling on Mr Ramaphosa to boot out President Zuma, I also call on the Synod of Bishops to boot him out. He is an embarrassment to the church and has brought it into disrepute. Alternatively, he should resign as Archbishop and seek election as a member of the Western Cape Provincial Committee of the ANC.”

The rest of Tabane’s diatribe is not worth responding to, save to mention that it is centred on flawed reasoning. In my article I sought to segment Zuma’s lynch mob based on interests and location. For instance my criticism of Cosatu was that it has invested too much energy and time in the “Zuma recall” rather than on advancing the interests of the working class and the land issue.

Finally, Tabane seeks to challenge the general points I sought to make by listing some individuals that do not fit neatly into the propositions I made. It should have been obvious to Tabane that we can never vouch for people’s motives but more to the point, counter examples do not disprove the proposition. Put differently, exceptions to a general rule do not disprove it but confirm it. That is a basic logic. To say black people are in general poor is disproved by waving the names of the likes of Cyril Ramaphosas, Robert Gumedes, and the Patrice Motsepes of this world.

However the most critical contribution that interventions such as those of Tabane offer is to encourage a culture of criticism of all that exist. But doing so should not be used to shut out uncomfortable views or those that one finds unpalatable. We must refuse to submit to group think, or ask the wrong questions, or fall for easy answers. Our gaze, should at all times, be focused on advancing the interests of the majority. These can be addressed if we focus on addressing structural and historic injustices. But then we cannot prevent those whose preoccupation is with individuals. DM

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