To infinity and beyond
13 December 2017 13:08 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

Nkandla is to Zuma what AIDS was to Mbeki: The truth will out

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

The last sitting of parliament was both exhilarating and frightening. It was in turns petty and inspiring. While the parliamentary antics spoke of a deep crisis of leadership in this country, they were also a marker of the tenacity of South African activism and the robustness of public opinion and debate. Our representatives may have appeared to be silly on numerous occasions over the last few months, but the opposition were so dogged in their refusal to turn away from the truth – which is that Nkandla stinks and it will not stop stinking just because the African National Congress has a majority in Parliament – that it was hard not to admire them in spite of themselves.

At the same time, watching the ANC use its majority to set unfair processes in motion, and then seeing it do its best to undermine the very processes it has established, has been very difficult for those of us who once believed in the party. In some ways, the sadness at what the ANC has become, and the joy at watching a rag-tag group of young people challenge its conduct on moral grounds, has been reminiscent of a moment 10 years ago when the ANC seemed equally invincible.

A decade ago the party had a leader who seemed just as determined not to listen to what the public was saying as it does today. Despite this, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) was able to prevail against Aids denialism and bullying in order to win a fight on behalf of millions of South Africans.

There are, of course, fundamental differences between the opposition parties pushing the Nkandla issue and the TAC. However the story of TAC and its triumph is worth thinking through in light of our current circumstances.

The TAC wasn’t a political party (although many people accused it of operating like one at the time and continue to do so), and its leaders weren’t compromised by their own histories in the same way that some within the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters seem to be. Nonetheless the Nkandla #PayBackTheMoney campaign is in many ways an antecedent to the TAC’s Aids campaign.

In the same way that Mbeki’s Aids denialism became an albatross that the former president could not shake from his neck, Nkandla is a yoke will not allow Zuma to walk freely. Indeed, Zuma has become so chained by Nkandla that the very spectre of the Public Protector’s report and its implications has determined where he will and will not go in this country. It is extraordinary that a president will not set foot in the legislature because of a single issue, but we have seen a single issue undo a president before.

Just like Mbeki before him, Zuma has been subjected to humiliating songs and pointed remarks about his character. While Mbeki and his health minister were the prime targets of the wrath of the TAC a decade ago, today it is Zuma and his Speaker, Baleka Mbete, who bear the brunt of public hostility. While the scenes of EFF members in hard hats and domestic workers’ uniforms, asking when the president is going to pay back the money have been poignant, the images of the Treatment Action Campaign as it set about shaming the ANC for letting people die of a treatable disease were no less powerful.

Given the short news cycles and the endless scandals we have had to endure, it is easy to forget that before the TAC’s civil disobedience campaign began, South Africans had been in the thrall of our new democracy and our new leaders. When the TAC began to raise serious questions about the state’s refusal to provide ARVs to pregnant women when science had proven that it was possible to prevent HIV transmission, our freedom was still shiny and clean and largely untested.

Where Mandela had opened his arms to us, Mbeki folded his across his chest. Where Mandela had been open to loving, Mbeki was open for business. And because he shone with ambition, an ambition that seemed collective rather than personal, we loved him. Ah, how we loved him. With his glittering mind and lilting cadences and his poetry. His every sentence spoke to us of the dignity and pride we always knew we had possessed. He cultivated questions in us that we had never thought to ask. Here in our beautiful new president was evidence that the very notion of black intellectual inferiority was a lie. Ah, how we loved him.

We so loved his mind that when he began to ask highly theoretical questions about whether a virus caused a syndrome, we thought he might have had a momentary lapse. Perhaps, we rationalised, this curious intellectual jaunt though territory that had already been trod upon by others far better qualified than he to explore these questions in depth was going to take us somewhere useful. But it didn’t. It led everybody to nowhere and yet it continued. It became puzzling, embarrassing even. We wondered what was happening to our latter-day hero. When these questions led him to stay awake feverishly seeking answers in the ether, on the ’net, through his secure connection as he browsed like a mole, we thought that perhaps he was blind to what others could see.

Ah, but still we loved him. He embodied so much of what we aspired to. Even if he was imperious, he was also urbane and driven and a master of detail who was overseeing a grand scheme that required an appreciation of both the macro and the micro.

But then we began to see he wasn’t only angry about the virus. He was also angry when citizens worried aloud about escalating crime statistics. We saw that he resented having to explain the Zimbabwe strategy that he referred to as “quiet diplomacy”. We began to understand that the thing that made him angriest of all was that we the people were asking him questions at all. By this time he was surrounded by people of weak character; the inevitable bootlickers and acolytes who cluster around power offering their leader yesses and overstretched grins and enthusiastic nods, these men and women of poor judgment and poorer moral standing egged him on, allowing him to believe in his own righteousness.

It was this, in the end, this inability by Mbeki to understand how disappointed the nation was not only at his stance on Aids, but at his seemingly contemptuous attitude towards we the people, that was his downfall. His aloofness, his prickliness and his refusal to concede that he might have been wrong on Aids, or crime, or Zimbabwe, alienated him from we the people who so desperately wanted a post-Mandela hero.

And so, when the marches began, when Nkosi Johnson pulled at our heartstrings with his eyes that seemed larger than life itself, when a sick young man called Zackie, who was inchoate with righteousness, who was electric in his desire to live, whose rage sparked from his skin because the justness of his cause was so clear; when the marches and arrests did not stop, when the songs of liberation were sung channeling old meanings for a new struggle; when all this happened as we watched, some of the liberators began to feel a certain kind of sorrow. They kept an uneasy quiet. As dust rose under angry toyi-toying feet the same feet that had stomped for freedom that now marched for pills these men and women who called themselves our liberators ducked their heads in shame. They knew that their brother leader had erred.

And when the death toll began to mount, when Mbeki remained resolute and distant in spite of the body count because he could neither admit defeat nor accept that he had perpetrated an injustice against his own people, those around him looked askance. Quietly, they began to talk amongst themselves. The media reports, the pillorying of his minister – she of beetroots and garlic even the death of his spokesperson after a long illness he purported to have never seen none of these seemed to shake him.

I remember these things now because we are again at a crossroads. The Treatment Action Campaign gave all South Africans permission to look a president in the eye and tell him that he was wrong. The TAC taught us to challenge the post-apartheid state by changing the rules of engagement.

The TAC said ‘we the people are not afraid of you’. Had it not been for the moral pressure brought to bear by the TAC pressure that forced the ANC and its allies to confront real and undeniable problems of leadership and accountability within their structures South Africans might have taken longer to understand that they had a right to ask critical questions and to demand more and better answers from their liberators.

The recall of Mbeki was in large part a function of internal ANC politics. However, there is no denying that it was significantly affected by the moral suasion of the TAC and its campaign of non-violent public protest. The scenes of thousands of South Africans mobilising against a democratic government and a president, who was seen as dangerously out of touch with reality, were breathtaking. The TAC taught us that democratic change doesn’t only come through the ballot box; it comes from the street, through collective citizen outrage and concerted action.

Today’s ANC is smarter than yesterday’s. The man at the helm of the ANC today is far more connected to the rumblings within his party than Mbeki ever was. Indeed, this is the fundamental difference between Mbeki and Zuma. Mbeki did not have the time or the inclination for the pettiness of politicking, whereas Zuma seems to only have time for maneuvering and ensuring that he is not blindsided.

Zuma learned from Mbeki’s mistakes. One might criticise Mbeki’s technicist approach as neo-liberal, but at least he had an ideological leaning. Zuma is not attached to any ideologies and as a result he has amassed a broad often-rudderless coalition of interests in service of the pure and yet stunningly mundane objective of staying in power.

The irony is that the factionalism that has weakened the ANC’s character and undermined its moral standing is what keeps Zuma afloat. A weak ANC makes for a strong Zuma. Yet factionalism has a long history within the ANC. At root, the Nkandla crisis, like the Aids crisis before it, is about the importance of the truth. There is an infamous dictator who once said, “It is not truth that matters, but victory.”

In South Africa today surely we can agree that man was wrong. Surely we can say that the truth still matters very much, and that in the end, because of this, the truth must be victorious. If this is the case, then Nkandla will be Zuma’s downfall just as surely Aids was for his predecessor. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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