South Africa


What Zuma’s supporters tell us about where the #FightBack faction is at

Illustrative image | sources: Former president Jacob Zuma (Photo: Thulani Mbele) / Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini (Photo: Gallo Images / City Press / Leon Sadiki)

Both Mzwandile Masina and Carl Niehaus have said they will go to jail for Jacob Zuma. His son Edward Zuma says he is willing to die to protect his father. Amid these histrionics, the expressions of support for the former president are useful for what they tell us about the current landscape of the ANC.

In a week where discussion of former president Jacob Zuma’s health has dominated news cycles, the official line from the ANC has been relatively measured.

In a statement on Wednesday 5 February, the party said it “respects the decision of the court” to issue a (stayed) arrest warrant for Zuma due to his lawyers’ failure to produce a convincing medical explanation for his absence in court on Monday, 3 February.

The ANC appealed to the public to “exercise patience and allow former President Jacob Zuma and the courts to deal with the matter when it resumes again on the 6th of May 2020”.

The statement also termed Zuma a “law-abiding citizen who has consistently respected the courts”, a description somewhat undermined by a picture posted on Zuma’s Twitter account on Wednesday night showing the former president taking aim with a rifle, which many interpreted as a message of rebellion or contempt towards the current legal proceedings.

But despite the ANC’s call for patience and respect with regards to the decision of Judge Dhaya Pillay to issue an arrest warrant, it has not taken long for individual party figures and groupings to make far more intemperate statements on the matter. The ANC Women’s League, Youth League and Mkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) have all come out guns blazing.

Leading the pack was ANC Women’s League president and long-time Zuma ally Bathabile Dlamini, who referred to the court proceedings on Monday as a “day of shame for our nation”.

Dlamini said the issuing of an arrest warrant against Zuma was “nothing but a symptom of how blacks and black African lives are disregarded”, and amounted to the stripping away of Zuma’s “personal dignity, rights and humanity”.

Her statement’s most explosive paragraph reads:

“But the evil white establishment will not rest! They need a scapegoat to use to rewrite the history, and defocus the nation from our real problems. Zuma is that convenient scapegoat!”

The ANC Youth League in the Western Cape followed suit with a statement urging “dignity” and “compassion” in the treatment of Zuma, and lamenting the fact that “the warrant of arrest has created a false narrative that he is guilty”.

Limpopo’s ANC Youth League chapter stepped things up a notch, explicitly indicating their refusal to play along with the ANC’s instructions:

“What the mini statement of the ANC ignored to mention is the fact that to respect the independence of the judiciary is not to be fearful in exposing corruption and judicial syndicalism that has been playing itself out since the real state capturers took over,” their statement read.

“We will not be shocked when other leaders of the ANC like President Bathabile Dlamini of the ANCWL, Nomvula Mokonyane, the SG Ace Magashule and everyone else who is outspoken against the syndicate and supported a different view in Nasrec is also arrested soon.”

The ANC Youth League in KwaZulu-Natal termed the issuing of the arrest warrant “a clear indication that Former President Zuma will not get a fair trial”, and called for a permanent stay of prosecution for their “hero”.

Gauteng’s MKMVA branch similarly spied sinister political motives behind the arrest warrant, accusing the NPA of being “used and abused for narrow party political objectives”.

Limpopo’s MKMVA saw the warrant as a dark portent of the future, “showing us some glimpses of what is to transpire in the end of this trial”.

The style may vary, but the content of these statements is strikingly similar. Consistent in most of them is the intention to suggest that South Africa’s judiciary is under the thumb of Zuma’s enemies.

These enemies are not explicitly named, but Ramaphosa and his administration are clearly fingered, using references to the victors at Nasrec (ie, the ANC electoral conference in 2017), “the real state capturers”, the “politicians who have an axe to grind against Cde President Zuma”, and so on.

They are painted as being in close cahoots with “the evil white establishment” (Dlamini), or “the altar of whiteness” (ANCYL Limpopo), or remaining forces of the “brutal white minority system” (MKMVA Limpopo).

The conspiracy may even extend beyond South Africa’s borders: Zuma’s son Edward said in a statement that the project to destroy Jacob Zuma was being driven by people “all over the world, especially the Western powers”.

The latter narrative has, of course, most forcefully been spread by Jacob Zuma himself, who repeated the claim that he was the target of a decades-old international plot when he appeared before the Zondo Commission in 2019.

Though none of the statements have delved into the corruption charges for which Zuma will stand trial, almost all carry the supposition of his innocence as a no-brainer.

Even if Zuma is not totally innocent, however, it doesn’t matter: the example of former president FW de Klerk is repeatedly used by his supporters to make the implication that past South African leaders have committed far more serious crimes than Zuma and yet are walking free in society, treated with respect.    

What this strongly suggests is that the evidence to be presented in Zuma’s corruption trial will do little to change the minds of those who believe on principle that it is unjust for a black South African president to be in the dock when no white leader has stood trial for the crimes of apartheid.

The responses to Judge Pillay’s issuing of the arrest warrant should also be read as a taster of the reaction the country is likely to see if indeed Zuma is successfully prosecuted for corruption. In which case, the salient question is: how much power do these vocal Zuma supporters hold?

From one perspective, the answer is: Not very much, particularly when it comes to discredited entities like the MKMVA. It is also noteworthy that of the individual figures who have expressed outrage about the arrest warrant – Dlamini, Edward Zuma, Carl Niehaus, Mzwandile Masina – only two currently hold meaningful roles in the ANC: Dlamini and Masina.

Dlamini works at ANC headquarters at Luthuli House, but it is in her position as ANC Women’s League president that she still maintains a public platform. Masina, meanwhile, who announced on Twitter that he was “ready to go to jail” for Zuma, serves as Ekurhuleni mayor – a position he still holds despite announcing before Nasrec in 2017 that he would resign if Ramaphosa became president.

But in the greater scheme of things, these are relatively feeble spokespeople for the former president. What both the ANC Women’s League and the ANC Youth League do have, however, is the ability to make life more difficult (and noisier) for Ramaphosa at the ANC policy conference mid-year to which both groups will send delegates.

Another issue to consider is whose interests these groups might be representing behind the scenes. Through his generosity to students – particularly in his home province of the Free State – ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, for instance, commands strong support within the Youth League. So, while the expressions of support for Zuma may be currently limited to a few expected faces and vocal ANC sub-groups, the possibility should not be excluded that they are serving as useful pawns for far more powerful #FightBack forces.

Yet it’s worth noting that the expressions of outrage within these Zuma supporters’ statements appear to be undergirded by a deeper underlying sentiment: fear.

After all, what Judge Pillay’s actions on Monday signal most clearly is a refusal to be cowed by the status of a former leader when attending to judicial procedure. Little wonder that some of those whose actions have also come under scrutiny during the Zuma years are protesting the loudest.

Bathabile Dlamini summed it up best, in words that might be a fearful prediction of her own future: “When they are done with Zuma, tomorrow it would be another comrade.” DM  



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