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Response to #RememberKhwezi protest highlighted Zuma’s ambiguity on women’s rights issues

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Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

It was a sour end to a long, tiring and in part exhilarating week. This unsavoury moment represented the Zuma presidency in a nutshell and laid bare all that is wrong with the ANC.

South Africans had gone to the polls and voted for change. Despite the misgivings about the IEC’s capacity and independence, we seemed to have pulled off yet another free and fair election.

The election results again showed a country which never ceases to surprise and which seems to lurch between uncertainty and a fierce belief in the future despite the odds. The final IEC announcement has become somewhat of a tradition; always an event presided over with dignity and now almost routine.

Until Saturday night, that is.

The event got off to a poor start with Kate Bapela being left to ad lib while President Zuma arrived 15 minutes late. Perhaps the IEC should have gone ahead and started anyway? Zuma was already indicating his disrespect for South Africans and the IEC.

The IEC’s Mosotho Moepya gave a brief overview of the past days and made an impassioned speech about how fiercely we have defended the gains of our democracy. They were words to lift the spirit.

And then the president made his way to the podium to speak. As Zuma spoke, four women stood in silent protest holding placards reading “Khanga” and “Remember Khwezi”. How could we not, especially in Women’s month?

Khwezi was the woman who accused Zuma of rape all those years ago. It was in that trial that we got a real sense of Zuma’s views on Aids as well as on women. We knew about his penchant for making the wrong friends and his messy finances because of the Shaik trial, but the rape trial was all the more distasteful. After Zuma’s acquittal, Khwezi fled. This seems to be no country for women who accuse powerful men of rape.

Lest we forget though, it was Zwelinzima Vavi and Julius Malema who mounted a fierce defence of Zuma at the time of the rape trial, denigrating the woman – and all women. That discourse still haunts the political and social landscape. The contradictions in last night’s protests were writ large therefore and for many were laced with just a bit of political opportunism.

Because how things have changed. It seems that the EFF had arranged this silent protest before they themselves left the room as Zuma began to speak.

Zuma seemed unaware of the silent protest but the cameras panned to the angry expression on Minister of Small Business Development Lindiwe Zulu’s face. Nomvula Mokonyane, the ANC’s head of elections and ANC Women’s League President, Bathabile Dlamini, were similarly outraged. The sycophants have no limits it seems. It was, after all, Lindiwe Zulu who nearly went to fisticuffs outside Parliament once against an EFF MP. All in the name of her compromised boss.

Then followed something deeply uncomfortable as the IEC’s Terry Tselane apologised to the president. It’s hard to be trenchantly critical of Tselane who, for so long, has done a sterling job within the IEC, sometimes in difficult political moments. But quite why he felt the need to apologise is anyone’s guess. Had the women been left to protest silently, much more might have been gained. As Zuma walked back to his seat his bodyguards were seen roughing up the women, grabbing their posters and shoving them away. Does such thuggish behaviour belong in a constitutional democracy? All the while, Zuma sat, buttoned up his jacket and let out a laugh.

Later Bathabile Dlamini was seen on television demanding all manner of apologies from the IEC and saying the president’s security had been compromised.

The IEC owes the president no apology. Protest is a right enshrined in the Constitution, be it against the president himself or anyone else. No law was broken here. Some have questioned the protesters’ motives but, as we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the womens march, our focus should be on the message of rape and violence against women as well as the president’s own ambiguity on women’s rights issues. We should also be questioning the president’s bodyguards and their use of force against unarmed young women. It goes along with the blue light brigades and excessive security that have come to mark the Zuma years.

But this unsavoury moment represented the Zuma presidency in a nutshell and laid bare all that is wrong with the ANC. It has, as Kgalema Motlanthe recently said, “lost the plot”. Zuma has been marred by scandal and it follows him around wherever he goes – on the campaign trail, to Parliament and now to the IEC. Those around him appear blind to his faults and too busy feeding at the trough of patronage to care. So when Cyril Rampahosa and others commendably said this week that the ANC would be introspective about the election results, one wonders which part of the ANC that is? Will Zuma himself be able to do so? Thus far in his presidency he has only played the divide-and-rule card and, despite “Nenegate”, the Nkandla scandal, “Guptagate” and an array of other issues dogging him, he has never taken the high road. Can we expect him to now? It has been on his watch that the ANC’s electoral dominance has diminished – and the ANC would do well to examine why. Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize has admitted that “internal issues” have dogged the ANC. The time has come to name those more openly.

The most curious thing about the protest was that despite Minister of State Security David Mahlobo’s assertions of dominance, no one in the president’s security detail picked up on this potential silent protest. But then again, Mahlobo and his people failed to pick up intelligence on the protests in Vuwani, Tshwane and the #Feesmustfall protests earlier this year. It seems they are more interested in threats to Zuma from within the ANC than actual state security.

These elections have delivered the ANC and Zuma a stinging rebuke. Zuma’s presidency has come only to represent self-serving excess. Saturday evening’s protest showed four women entirely prepared to challenge a president for whom most of the country lacks respect.

But let’s imagine the evening having proceeded differently. Let us imagine that the dignity of the event had simply been maintained. The president was left to speak, the protesters stood in silence, no apology needed and the event closed? That would have been a singularly powerful act of freedom of expression in a constitutional democracy. It would have been a sign of our collective democratic maturity. But instead there was a fracas that marred an event that should have been remembered as another stepping stone in consolidating our democracy. The evening was a stark reminder that we have a president who is unfit for office and who peddled his way to power by all means, fair or foul.

Zuma is a millstone around the neck of the ANC and the country. He can drag his party and the country down no further. The people have spoken; will the ANC? Or is it destined to continue, divided, until Zuma eventually splits a once proud party? DM

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