Over the weekend, President Cyril Ramaphosa used the funeral of former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe to apologise for the violence directed at foreign nationals in South Africa. Meanwhile, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema, used Mugabe’s death to express how much he appears to hate white people.
Zimbabwe has always loomed large in South Africa’s politics. This is mainly because it is a much smaller version of ourselves: theirs was also a liberation struggle against a racist white minority government.
This has found expression in many ways, going back decades. The then-prime minister of what was then called Rhodesia, Ian Smith, received such a wild cheer from the white audience at a Springbok rugby match in the 1970s that some people remarked he would have won a whites-only election in South Africa. Here, he was the embodiment of what might have been the hopes of many in that crowd at the time – to keep the southernmost tip of Africa under a white government.
In the 1990s, during our transition, Mugabe’s land programme, which saw white farmers forcibly removed from their farms, was a huge talking point in SA politics. By the early 2000s, as the programme gained strength, the failure of the Thabo Mbeki government to condemn the programme and its continued support of Mugabe, political and otherwise, was seen as a proxy for what could happen in South Africa. Mbeki’s policy of “quiet diplomacy” was ridiculed, and achieved virtually no success. (This is contested by some, and Mbeki will deny this intensely, though it is hard to fight the facts – Ed.)
Now, our politics has changed dramatically, while Zimbabwe’s has shifted by only a small fraction.
Saturday’s event, at which Ramaphosa had to stand up, would have been a difficult moment for our president. But he would surely have known it was coming. There is a famous quote ascribed to Mugabe, that he once called Ramaphosa “A white man in a black man’s skin”. In terms of insults within the liberation movement, it doesn’t get more cutting or direct than that.
It is sometimes presumed that Mugabe had a much better relationship with former president Jacob Zuma. But, despite one or two pictures that appeared to show they had a close relationship, this was not the case. Zuma found Mugabe a very difficult person to deal with. Once, in frustration, Mugabe referred to Zuma’s ambassador (now Minister) Lindiwe Zulu as a “street girl”. Again, a very cutting and direct insult.
On another occasion, in 2010 when Zuma was beginning to move to expel Malema from the ANC, Malema was invited by Mugabe to Zimbabwe. He was treated like royalty. Malema sang Dubula iBhunu – Shoot the Boer while in Zimbabwe, just days after a judge in South Africa had ruled that it was illegal for him to sing it here.
(That was part of the series of events that led to the Malema hate speech trial in 2011. The Equality Court eventually ruled against him, and AfriForum and the ANC settled before it was heard by the Constitutional Court).
So, when Ramaphosa stood up at an event that was to all political intents and purposes a Zanu-PF event, it did not surprise many that he was booed.
What did surprise, was that he was cheered for his apology.
The roots of the difficulty between the post-Mbeki ANC and Mugabe lie in the fact that the ANC is a non-racial movement that understands, in its DNA, that it has to govern for everyone, otherwise it is completely lost. The same cannot be said for Zanu-PF, which has given the strong impression that it has always been interested in governing for only one group of people, the majority Shona-speaking people.
In the middle of all of this is Malema.
He announced his “ban” on journalists from Daily Maverick and the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative journalism last week while standing next to a model figure of Mugabe. Despite once calling for Mugabe to step down as president (only two years ago, in 2017), Malema has spent the last two weeks praising him to the skies.
Then, over the weekend, he tweeted a video of Mugabe quotes. One of the quotes was: “The only white man you can trust is a dead white man”.
— CVN (@Snowy_the_Dog) September 15, 2019
Malema knows exactly what he is doing. He is doing what he did when he said “I’m not calling for the slaughter of whites. Yet.” Or when he said, “We will slit the throat of whiteness” in Nelson Mandela Bay. He is dog-whistling master, telling his supporters that he is fighting white people, while still steering clear of incitement laws.
For some, there will be frustration that the Human Rights Commission, which has taken action against anti-black racism by white people, has failed to act against Malema.
What is interesting here is that Malema feels the need to stand so close to Mugabe while he says this, appearing to almost hide behind him. Perhaps he feels that to stand on his own and say these words would result in legal action against him. He has been sailing very close to the wind with the Human Rights Commission – to lose a case would cross a line.
The other intriguing point about Malema’s tweet is that he has trusted white people in the past. It would appear that without a particular white person, an alleged tobacco smuggler, the EFF would not have been able to pay the fee to register for the 2014 elections. Malema’s wife and child live next door to the same white person. And the Inanda Club is known more for its polo fields than its record on transformation.
This can be seen as another example of Malema’s hypocrisy. He tweets anti-white sentiments, while in fact he is happy to take money from white people. And by taking money from an alleged tobacco smuggler and then working against the efforts of SARS to tackle tobacco smuggling, it would appear Malema is happy to take the white man’s money when it works in his own interest.
This again is the split between the ANC and Zanu-PF writ large. The ANC has stood for non-racialism, Zanu-PF has not. Malema is much more aligned with the Zanu-PF of Mugabe than he is with the current ANC.
It is important to note that there are limits to how much support Malema’s use of Mugabe will get him. While Mugabe was an important political figure and played a role in the liberation of South Africa, his support waned towards the end of his time in office. Voting figures still do not show that to quote Mugabe, as Malema has for many years, wins you more than 10.8% of the vote. Which means that while this kind of move may intensify support for Malema among his base, it may not widen his support in any significant way.
The death of Mugabe may have revealed another change in South African politics and in our society more generally.
In the past, it was considered the worst possible behaviour in South Africa to speak ill of the dead. While, officially, political parties were polite in their condolences to the Mugabe family, ordinary people were not. Less than an hour after news broke of Mugabe’s death, one person called in to SAfm to say that he hoped Mugabe “went straight to hell”. On Twitter, many people who had everything to gain from the end of white minority rule, both here and in Zimbabwe, condemned him. Some argued against the EFF, demanding to know why they should mourn Mugabe when he had forced them to leave their own country.
Not only that Mugabe was a hugely divisive figure, but also that SA culture is changing. This could be important in that dying can, for a politician, be a political act. In the past, the negative deeds of a deceased person were glossed over. Now it appears that that is no longer the case –people strongly criticise a leader’s legacy soon after that person has died. Malema the realpolitik practitioner should also consider how much his open grief, over a figure almost universally loathed, as Mugabe is, could cost him in the long run.
It is important to remember how different our society is from Zimbabwe. South Africa is much bigger, with a much larger economy, and a strong (although weakening) trade union movement. It is also much harder to govern. It is impossible to control our media, or to stop people from talking, or prevent them from organising against you. South Africa’s politics is now very different from what Zimbabwe’s has ever been.
Still, the resonance from our northern neighbour will remain here for some time. DM