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Between a rock and a hard place, we are stuck with Jacob Zuma


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Jacob Zuma really, actually, represents the most basic instincts of the ANC. The movement remains committed to a strict form of respect – what loyal members would refer to as “discipline” – patriarchy, and a crypto-traditionalism that does not question the dominant male in the community. By ISMAIL LAGARDIEN

In March this year I wrote a small and rather speculative article about the disappearance of antagonists in KwaZulu-Natal, the province where conflict threatened to tip South Africa into a bloody civil war in the early 1990s. This was the time, and the place, where former president, Nelson Mandela, made one of his most memorable speeches, at a time when his conciliatory approach shone like a beacon in a tempestuous time in the country.

Take your guns, your knives and your pangas and throw them into the sea,” Mandela told a predominantly Zulu crowd outside King’s Park stadium in Durban, in February 1990.

End this war now…. We condemn in the strongest terms the use of violence as a way of settling differences between our peoples,” he said. “If we do not bring a halt to this conflict, we will be in great danger of corrupting the proud legacy of our struggle and will endanger the peace process in the whole of our country.”

Bear in mind, as we go through these reflections, the difference between Mandela’s appeal for weapons to be thrown into the sea, and President Jacob Zuma’s signature tune, “Umshniwami” which is, essentially, a call to arms.

Nonetheless, Mandela insisted in 1990, that peace could be achieved only through amity, and that the African National Congress would sit down and hold talks with Zulu leaders, King Goodwill Zwelithini, and the Inkatha Feedom Party (IFP). “Let us sit down with Inkatha and make peace,” Mandela said, invoking the region’s proud history of resistance to colonialism.

Peace did not arrive on schedule, violence would continue, but tensions would, eventually, ease and overt and bloody conflict stopped. The country’s leaders would sit down and forge a political settlement, which ultimately led to the first democratic election in the country in 1994, and adoption of South Africa’s Constitution in 1996.

Going back to the small article I wrote in March, the main question I posed, somewhat naughtily, was why it seemed so impossible to impeach, replace or recall Zuma. I wondered aloud, after speaking to friends from the province, what it was, exactly, that Zuma had over every member of his Cabinet, and over the ANC’s National Executive Committee, that he could gnash his teeth and snap, like a wounded dragon, at anyone or any institution that dared question his authority. I reached two conclusions at the time.

One was that Zuma really, actually, represents the most basic instincts of the ANC, and that the movement remained committed to a strict form of respect – what loyal members would refer to as “discipline” – patriarchy, and a crypto-traditionalism that did not question the dominant male in the community. This is part of the Africanisation of South Africa, which is un-contestable, I should stress that we are African, and do not need to explain that to anyone, and a re-tribalisation of the country’s politics.

The second conclusion was that Zuma may hold the key to amity and stability in KwaZulu-Natal. I came to the conclusion that it was Zuma who brought the antagonists, in the conflict between the ANC and IFP together, through a combination of patronage, nepotism, favours and investment in the province. One of the outcomes, by accident or design, was the slow deterioration of the Eastern Cape, probably as a means to reduce the relative power and historical basis of Xhosa leadership in the ANC, and the raising of Zulu influence. Consider, for instance, the deterioration of places like Bizana, the home of OR Tambo, and the desecration of Tambo’s statue.

For instance, speaking about her treatment at Mthata, Phyllis Ntantala, mother of ANC stalwart, Pallo Jordan, described her horrifying experience at Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital in Mthatha. “I was admitted as an emergency case at the intensive care unit at Nelson Mandela hospital. There I was stripped and lay naked in bed under an obviously used sheet for two days until a member of my family managed to bring me some nightclothes…. In all my 80-plus years, I have never felt as insulted as I did for those two days.”

It is, however this role as an ersatz peacemaker in KZN that may help explain why it is so difficult for the ANC to replace or remove, Zuma as its leader. There is a very real chance that if he is removed, and there is even a whiff of a purge of all his cronies and beneficiaries from KZN – among whom were former IFP members and foot-soldiers in the conflict of the late 1980s and early 1990s – after his departure, that the antagonists may return, and the province could see a return to conflict. This is, of course, speculative.

There is, nonetheless, evidence of more silent and insidious hits and assassinations in KZN since 1994; not all of which may have been directly “political”. More recently, one research project concluded that in July 2012 the National Freedom Party reported that 22 of its members had been killed “since the launch of the party in February 2011. Comparison to the list of 61 appears to indicate that this may exclude the deaths of up to ten NFP members in the period up to July 2012, and probably more in the subsequent period. Likewise, it was reported in October 2012 that an internal ANC investigation in KwaZulu-Natal had found that 38 members had been killed since 2011”. The researchers were cautious not to blame all killings on political conflict, but what does seem to have happened is that the murders that were so part of the pre-1994 conflict may have gone underground, as it were.

So, we can come back to the speculative questions I raised in March: What has happened to the antagonists in the violence that so threatened the province of KZN in the early 1990s, when Mandela told antagonists to “throw their weapons into the sea”? One answer to this is that they antagonists may have been co-opted into the ANC’s network of graft, patronage, largesse and the promise of “development” – all of which has been driven by Zuma.

Following the dismissal of Nhlanhla Nene, there have been suggestions that Zuma should be recalled or removed; admittedly these calls came mainly from social network critics. My sense is that removing Zuma could lead to greater instability in the country. However venal and offensive we may think he is, or has been, between the rock of the ANC’s traditionalism, of respecting and obeying “the leader”, and the hard place of KZN… South Africa, we are stuck with Jacob Zuma. DM


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