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As Zuma gets his denouement, South Africa needs deep self-reflection on its faultlines

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Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

While Jacob Zuma’s role in this sad moment for our country is plain for all to see, South Africa will need to take a long and hard look at itself and its faultlines which have for so long been ripe for exploitation.

The past few days in South Africa have been deeply distressing. 

Things seem to be falling apart; the centre is not holding.

Former president Jacob Zuma now finds himself behind bars in an Estcourt prison. As the clock ticked towards midnight last Thursday, a few supporters dribbled around Nkandla. Zuma’s son Edward mumbled incoherently into the camera. Finally, Zuma was arrested. The Constitution had withstood the test of that pivotal moment. 

We saluted our Constitutional Court as Justice Sisi Khampepe delivered the strongly-worded judgment on behalf of the majority of the court. “Emotional”, cried Zuma and his coterie of supporters in their attempts to discredit Khampepe. It was not dissimilar to former US president Donald Trump’s labelling of Hillary Clinton as a “nasty woman” during their presidential candidates debate. It’s a trope used by men who seek to undermine women who threaten their worst insecurities.  

As if to underline this, the Jacob Zuma Foundation tweeted a picture of six men, including Zuma himself, Dali Mpofu, Thabani Masuku (both men, his legal counsel) and Jimmy Manyi with the caption:

“We are Team President Zuma. President Zuma is us. We are President Zuma. Nothing ethnic here. #WenzenuZuma”

Populism at its best with a whiff of toxic masculinity for good measure – these are the men behind Zuma’s reckless attempts to tear down the edifice of our constitutional democracy. These unprincipled lawyers and others who speak on behalf of Zuma are comfortable to weaponise gender, race, ethnicity, and poor legal argument in defence of the indefensible. It is for this reason that a half-baked application for rescission of the ConCourt judgment has been made, after all. It is also the reason why Judge Bhekisisa Mnguni gave the application for a stay of the warrant of arrest short shrift in the Pietermaritzburg High Court on Friday. 

It is the same way Trump used lawyers to do his bidding during his presidency. In fact, there is much about Zuma that is decidedly Trumpian. The law never applies to him, yet he is comfortable to invoke the courts’ assistance for his own benefit. In simple terms, when they find for him, they are upholding the rule of law and when they find against him, they are agents of “White Monopoly Capital”. Any slogan will do. 

The latest lie is that Zuma is being “detained without trial”, even as his lawyers are aware that he elected to walk out of the Zondo Commission and equally cocked a snook at the ConCourt by refusing to participate in the proceedings brought against him for contempt of court. 

The “detention without trial” mantra is a cheap attempt to whip up popular sentiment by invoking painful and emotionally charged apartheid memories. Similarly, Zuma’s lawyers warned of “another Marikana” should the Pietermaritzburg High Court not set aside the warrant for his arrest. Marikana was a painful and shameful moment in our post-apartheid history. It diminishes that moment by comparing it to Zuma’s arrest for wilful contempt of our democratic processes. 

To be clear: Zuma is not a victim. In fact, his contempt for the rule of law is worthy of our collective contempt. Now, finally faced with consequences for his actions, his supporters have turned to fomenting violence. This violence has now morphed into sheer criminality as malls and small businesses are looted in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. 

The situation seems out of control and the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, usually so eager to enforce lockdown laws, has been virtually silent. We have also witnessed a complete failure of intelligence to infiltrate communities where looting is happening and to monitor WhatsApp groups and social media. Jacob Zuma’s daughter openly incites violence on Twitter. This is a country of no consequences.

The violence and untrammelled looting have led President Cyril Ramaphosa to deploy the SANDF as he is entitled to do in terms of Section 201 of the Constitution. Given the failure of intelligence, it is unsurprising that there was a delay in putting together a comprehensive response. 

The populists’ playbook is to destroy and sow chaos and confusion. And there is plenty of that around. 

The unprincipled Julius Malema, leader of the EFF, has said his supporters will mobilise against troops on the streets. The EFF appears to be forming an unholy alliance with Zuma’s coterie of radical economic transformers, the so-called RET brigade. There are many within Zuma’s family and within and outside of the ANC who stand to gain from the violence being fomented. 

The populists’ playbook is to destroy and sow chaos and confusion. And there is plenty of that around. 

In all the chaos and confusion of violence and criminality, the Constitution itself has come under threat. How do we protect and defend the Constitution when many would seek to blame it for the ills in our society? 

For a while now, it has become easy and intellectually lazy for many to disparage our constitutional settlement and label Nelson Mandela as a “sell-out” for his role in negotiating South Africa’s transition. Zuma has been known to question the very Constitution he helped negotiate, after all. In an environment of want and degradation for millions of South Africans, it is easy to understand how this argument could be exploited and how it could resonate. 

Yet, it is a view ignorant of that historical moment and the sacrifices Mandela and countless others made for our collective freedom. 

Amid this mayhem, the ConCourt is hearing Zuma’s application for a rescission of the judgment against him. Mpofu must surely know his case is wafer-thin. Yet he relies less on legal rigour and precedent and more on a stealthy attempt to draw the ConCourt into the scenes of violence and looting happening outside. There is no doubt that part of the strategy is to intimidate the ConCourt into rescinding the application for fear of further anarchy. 

It would be a sad day should our apex court succumb to the pressure of thuggery and violence. Then, as Justice Khampepe said, the Constitution would not be worth the paper it is written upon.

Had Zuma been a leader with a jot of care for his country or the livelihoods of those on the margins, he would have acceded to the rule of law and indicated as much to his supporters. But his playbook is naked self-interest, and he has long ago shown that he will quite easily put his own interests above those of the country. 

At times of national crisis, leadership matters. This may well be the time to remember again Mandela’s leadership at the moment of Chris Hani’s assassination. It was Mandela’s act of leadership that pulled us back from the brink. Amidst the strong emotion of the moment, Madiba addressed a tense nation which may well have been on the brink of civil war that night.

And who can forget Mandela’s statesmanlike speech to a 200,000-strong crowd in Durban at the height of IFP-ANC violent clashes, when he said, “Take your guns, your knives and your pangas and throw them into the sea. End this war now.” He urged peace at a time when we thought peace was impossible – let alone a free and fair election.

It is this kind of leadership that is called for now, not only from Ramaphosa, who looks and sounds battle-weary, but from those within civil society, the media, communities, political parties, and religious organisations. We would seek it from the governing ANC but it is too divided and compromised to provide truly wise leadership at a time such as this.

While Zuma’s role in this sad moment for our country is plain for all to see, South Africa will need to take a long and hard look at itself and its fault-lines which have for so long been ripe for exploitation. In a country with such a high unemployment rate, specifically among the youth, and unsustainable levels of poverty and inequality, South Africa’s tinder box was only ever going to need a small flame. Add to this, weak law enforcement and near non-existent police intelligence and it’s easy for the genie to escape the bottle.

In South Africa, violence comes all too easily. As academic Nadia Davids said so eloquently this week as part of a lament for the state we are in, “Violence is South Africa’s 12th national language. A language built up carefully, systematically, over hundreds of years in every possible space – personal, political, public, individual and collective. It’s a language we need to stop being so fluent in.”

Ernesto Nhamuave, a 35-year-old Mozambican, was burnt alive during xenophobic violence on the East Rand in May 2008 that spread across the country. He became known as “The Burning Man”. A burning man in a burning country. Levels of inequality have simply increased since then and wanton violence has become almost everyday – until it subsides and we all continue with our lives. 

In 2015, the streets of Durban and surrounding townships were seething with anger and violence as foreigners and locals battled it out. The government finally stepped in to prevent a bloodbath in Durban, yet the response was largely reactive. Then, the late King Goodwill Zwelethini was quoted as saying all foreigners should return to the places they came from. At the time, the government refused to speak out against these blatantly inciteful comments and the king himself blamed the media for misinterpreting what he said.

As with everything else in South Africa, the reasons for violence are complex. Sometimes it has been driven by xenophobia, at other times a rather more confusing cocktail of anger, frustration and intolerance bubbling at the surface of our society. We seem to be straining at the seams as the repercussions of deep inequalities, our inability to bring about structural economic transformation post-1994 and the old baggage of the apartheid years come to haunt us. 

In countless works of research on local government and conflict in municipalities, the same mantra is heard repeatedly: “They only come when we start to burn things.”

We have seen violent flare-ups in our society again and again, although nothing as unpredictable as what we are seeing now. 

This time of course it is linked to the rather more dangerous cause of a victim-politician and his coterie of supporters who are fighting for self-preservation. 

Added to this is the fact that Ramaphosa has a tenuous grip on some parts of the ANC itself and that the state simply appears weak when it is faced with large-scale looting and what is in effect economic sabotage. 

For how long still can we keep the majority of South Africans on the margins of our society? Our futures, black and white, rich and poor, are intrinsically interlinked. How do we start to build that inclusive future and a new social compact as opposed to the same tired ideas of reconstruction? The ANC has run out of ideas and is too busy dealing with its internecine battles to be able to provide thought leadership. The far larger conversation needs to be inclusive, and it needs to happen with urgency. 

Our towns and cities are mostly falling apart, and the Covid-19 pandemic has left us in the perfect storm. State Capture has hollowed out our institutions and left them incapable and unresponsive. The recent Auditor-General report on municipalities indicates just how broken local government is. Corruption is, of course, endemic in many parts of the country. It is time that we had a discussion about big ideas to combat poverty and inequality. Now must surely be the time to think urgently about a basic income grant for instance.

At times of national crisis, citizens look to their leaders to articulate that which is in the national consciousness. There is collective pain and trauma, anger and frustration. But at such a time citizens also want a plan of action so that they know their lives and property will be protected from wanton acts of criminality. Ramaphosa’s speech on Monday night was stilted and, yet again, behind a wooden podium with no interaction with the media thereafter. 

Our constitutional order is being severely tested. Violence stalks the land and in the next few days may get worse before things get better. The SANDF should, with restraint, defend and protect the democratic order and the citizens of the republic. 

This was always going to be the denouement Zuma has perhaps sought all along. While it will be difficult, we must meet this moment with clear-eyed vision and with a will and a plan to build the inclusive future that our Constitution demands of us. We cannot continue to lurch from crisis to crisis hoping things will settle down. 

Ours is a country which demands much from those who call it home. It is bewildering and bewitching in equal measure. 

And so Ingrid de Kok’s searing poem, Today I do not love my country, written during the xenophobic violence of 2008, seems apposite as we lament for the crisis we are in – yet again. 

Today I do not love my country

South Africa, May 2008

Today I do not love my country.
It is venal, it is cruel.
Lies are open sewers in the street.
Threats scarify the walls.

Tomorrow I may defend my land
when others X-ray the evidence:
feral shadows, short sharp knives.
I may argue our grievous inheritance.

On Wednesday I may let the winded stars
fall into my lap, breathe air’s golden ghee,
smell the sea’s salt cellar, run my fingers
along the downy arm of the morning.

I may on Thursday read of a hurt child
given refuge and tended by neighbours,
sing with others the famous forgiving man
who has forgotten who were enemies, who friends.

But today, today, I cannot love my country.
It staggers in the dark, lurches in a ditch.
A curdled mob drives people into pens,
brands them like cattle,
only holds a stranger’s hand
to press it into fire,
strings firecrackers through a child,
burns stores and shacks, burns. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Peter Doble says:

    Wise words and sensible analysis. Sadly, and here we must hold up the appallingly hypocritical and former colonial polyglot “United” States of America as the primary example, never has a country been so divided, which displays all these traits – and more – while being one of the wealthiest on earth.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    Almost every single thing that is currently wrong with this country has either been created by the ANC, or they exacerbated it. This violence that we are seeing now has been created and nurtured by the ANC up to this point. Whether it’s the multitude of motions of no confidence that time after time got defeated even though the evidence was clear, or the ANCs inaction to preparing for the inevitable fallout that we are seeing here.

    Of course we want to talk about NHI and income grants now, funny how nobody wants to talk about funding these. And it is the ANC that has destroyed the hope of such systems for years and years to come by theft, cadre deployment and corruption. Even now, corruption is thriving (it almost feels as if it’s accelerating), stupid short sighted ideas are being pushed (power shops for 20 years?!) and personal agendas of despicable people are being pushed.

    It is very very clear what the common thread of problems are…

    • Andrew Spiegel says:

      Reflection means look inside yourself – not seek to blame an other.

      • Karl Sittlinger says:

        Absolutely, but not to the point where we ignore the elephants in the room. In this case let’s first fix the mess that is threatening the whole country and then we can do some self reflection, at least where it serves to actually solve something and isn’t used as a neat distraction. At this point though it’s really only the governments (and therefore the ANCs) failure, and it is here that we can make the biggest difference in the short and long term.

  • Liz Smith says:

    Thank you for your clear, heartfelt and beautifully worded article and it’s call to action, Judith February. And it is a mystery to me why the basic income grant has not received greater traction – please, we need it!

    • Karl Sittlinger says:

      How is this income grant to be financed? And pls don’t say through tax…not while we are experiencing open theft beyond any thing this country has seen before. We first need to stop the gushing leak that is sinking the shop before we can rearrange the deck chairs.

    • Louis Potgieter says:

      Just incrementally change over from all the various grants to the BIG. The conception need not be perfect from the getgo – adjustments can be made along the way.

      • Karl Sittlinger says:

        If it really is no different to what we already have, I fail to see how it will uplift the poor or change our inequality…

  • Andrew Spiegel says:

    Worthwhile analysis. But missing detailed reference to the centuries-long processes of exploitation through oppression and the persisting inequalities of a global system that advertises promises of a supposedly universal better life whilst tightening to screws that prevent most people ever realizing any such life circumstance improvement. We are integral parts of that global system and in our deep reflexivity we need to focus on that too.

    • Karl Sittlinger says:

      While this is true, it cannot serve as an excuse for the serial failures of our government (ANC). There is a narrative being spun here that corruption is just a symptom of poor people being exploited by capitalism, which when looking at the primary beneficiaries of the theft, is not really supported by facts. Even now during the looting, it seems that many of the main instigators were not acting out of need but rather greed.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Thank you, Judith.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    A clear-sighted and insightful analysis of many intersecting issues. Just wondering if in OUR ‘military’ (who have unfortunately had to been called in. in light of the apathetic police response) there is a General Milley among them ? The one in the US who defied Trump and his efforts to undermine their constitution … and when given the opportunity took apart the Republican gangster/upstart Matt Damon (who tried to take out Liz Cheney) in parliament ! Too many of our ‘institutions’ have been filled with unprincipled ‘cadres’ more interested in serving their personal interests, than serving the country. The Madiba willingness : “…if needs be, a cause for which I am prepared to die” and genuine non-racialism as compared to multi-racialism, is now a fading memory. In the name of law and order, we have persons who are not prepared to serve time in prison , despite publicly professing to do so. The legal counsel JZ is relying on seems to be the variety that wants to ‘have its cake and eat it’! Shameless .

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