At the bottom of the brief bio I was asked to prepare for this column, I made reference to the belief that nobody ruled without guilt. I have always taken this to mean that that the best of leaders can get (some) things wrong, and the worst of leaders can get (some) things right. And so, unless you’re a party loyalist, who believes that ‘the leader’ should receive uncritical adulation in perpetuity – the type of obedience that is demanded of the population in North Korea – you may consider all criticism of South Africa’s political leaders as a necessity rather than a nuisance.
There is, to be sure, much to be concerned about in South Africa, with respect, especially, to the dominant leader of the country. It is somewhat tragic that one may make this claim without even the weakest of evidence; it is often stated axiomatically amid mounting evidence of maladministration. Whether it is true or not, the country’s highest office, with the exception, perhaps, of the Deputy Presidency, is straining because of a set of fractures that, much like the presidency of Richard Nixon in the United States, may change how the next several presidents of South Africa will be viewed.
Under the Presidency of Jacob Zuma, the political economy of the country has been critically affected by these fractures. In some places these fractures are more evident; elsewhere they seem to have been papered over. I suspect that this papering over is what keeps the province of KwaZulu-Natal together, and Zuma at the helm of the ruling party. For now, however, the state-party nexus seems to be holding things together by a combination of handouts, favours and a sharing of spoils; a type of prebendialism that covers all sectors of society, at the centre of which is Zuma.
Ignoring the, by now, de rigueur denials, the cringeworthy and rather pitiful fables that emanate from an apparently oblivious ‘leadership’, South Africa seems to have entered a period of social and political economic decline, and of moral repugnancy. How, for instance, does one explain the fact that over more or less the same week and the days when Boko Haram massacred as many as 2,000 people in northern Nigeria, and thugs stormed a satirical magazine’s editorial offices in Paris – all with high-calibre automatic firearms – South Africa’s president sent party loyalists into a frenzy with his signature song: Umshini Wam (Bring me my machine gun)? One would imagine he had heeded president Nelson Mandela’s call for people to throw their arms into the sea. Sadly, not.
Rightfully or wrongfully, though, President Zuma has been placed at the centre of everything that is wrong with the country. Accusations against the president pile up almost weekly. ‘Divisive’ barely begins to describe the president as a person. Nothing about him, at least not that which we read in the newspapers or in books, or what is picked up in corridor conversations, makes sense. Phrases like, ‘you either love him or hate him,’ ‘he is misunderstood,’ ‘you have to know him to love him,’ ‘everyone loves to hate him’ have scrolled in and out of our daily feeds. The old canard that there is a media plot against him gets rolled out whenever his defenders run out of ideas, or excuses. Yet we seem nowhere near seeing the end of the Zuma presidency. The president raises so many more questions than there are answers.
What exactly do, or what should we make of this man? Is he really as bad a person as he has been made out to be? Is he a bad president? Is he really as venal and corrupt as is made out? Does he really have such an iron grip over the African National Congress? Has he really introduced ‘tribalism’ or ethnicity into South Africa’s politics? Or is he simply misunderstood by a Manichean media which can be good or evil – depending on whom they write about? Have we all been misled?
How is it possible that President Zuma can hold onto power in the way that he has – notwithstanding the evidence against him? What does he have over his colleagues, that almost everyone readily rises to his defence? Surely he does not go to executive meetings threatening people with physical violence, or exposure, expulsion and banishment if they don’t do as he says? If he is really so bad, why does he remain in charge? Is he the best that the ANC can give us? I know, for sure, that Cyril Ramaphosa is a brilliant, astute, thorough, reliable, fair and hard-working person. I trust him with the country, but it is not up to South Africans who will govern them. South Africa resembles a minimalist democracy. Once every five years, or so, we elect leaders on a slate prepared in-between breaks at the buffet. Everyone is, thereafter, expected to sit back and wait for the next general election.
Anyway, of all the questions that swirled in my head about the president, as I sat staring across the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal this past week, one stood out: Where have the antagonists of the past gone?
By my recollection, if there were any specific place where a full-scale South African ‘civil war’ may have taken place during the late 80s and mid-90s, it would have been here, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. A general history of the period may show that it was in this region where the ANC and Inkatha fought the bloodiest of battles for dominance. This province was the base of Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s claim, during the late 1980s, of seven million supporters. I don’t recall anyone ever testing to ensure that that was not poppycock…. Yet, by 2014, barely a fraction of voters in the province registered their support for Buthelezi. And, just-like-that (!) they were gone. The antagonists in one of the country’s bloodiest periods disappeared. Where did they go? From the election results, and based on the increased spending on housing, services and development projects in KZN, it seems the old adversaries are now all in the ANC, and are now reaping the benefits. By most accounts, this has been one of the defining features of Zuma’s electoral victories. Under Zuma’s leadership, the ANC has secured the ethnic Zulu vote, and rewarded the province of KZN rather well.
Perhaps this is one of the ‘good stories’ that ANC propagandists want us to believe. It is, perhaps, the reason why the ANC and South Africa needs Zuma more than he needs us. We need him to ensure the peace, and not take the country back to the bloody days of ‘Inkatha-ANC’ conflict. Maybe we need the bugger. Again, however, questions abound.
What happens when the money runs out? What happens when Zuma leaves, as surely he will, someday? Will we go back to those bloody days? Will the state-party nexus keep the antagonists in a state of amity? What will it cost South Africa?
Already a disproportionate amount of money goes to social grants. Many people – most of whom, we must assume, are poor and deserve assistance – depend on social grants for their livelihood. How many of the antagonists are, however, in a state of amity only because they benefit financially, through employment, social grants, tenders, contracts and positions of power and influence? How long can we afford to keep them at the trough? Can the country afford the antagonists? Did they really throw their weapons into the sea?
Try as I have over the past week, travelling in KZN, I have been unable to find sufficient evidence to suggest that Zuma has done more than keep the old antagonists happy. There are too many questions that beg to be answered. It is certainly true that some political leaders can get some things right, and some things wrong. On balance, though, if he fails to keep the old antagonists happy, the cost of a Zuma presidency may end up running much higher than the cost of the Nkandla project. Then again, maybe everything that is written here, is a figment of my imagination…DM