Politics is the art of the possible.
Opinion by Conway Tutani
Said political analyst Jim Robinson: “Art is just a word for imaginative creation. In other words, politics is all about the creation of an image. And creation in this sense, means enhancement. Accentuate the positives. Eliminate the negatives. Shade the truth. Lie by omission. Illusion. Fiction. Fantasy.” A rather cynical, but mostly true observation, I would say.
While South African President Jacob Zuma was basking in the glory of retaining the leadership of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) at the party’s elective conference in Mangaung, Bloemfontein, this week, an opposite scenario was playing outside the venue.
A small coffin symbolising a mock political funeral of former ANC Youth League president Julius “Juju” Malema was doused with petrol and set on fire. This was staged “to mark Malema’s political death” and to celebrate his ally-turned-enemy Zuma’s re-election as ANC leader. The inscription on the coffin read: “R.I.P. Juju . . .”
Malema, who was disciplined by Zuma for being “out of control” by repeatedly singing anti-white songs such as Dubhula Ibhunu (Shoot the Boer) and embarrassing the ANC, seems to be now dead and buried politically. Or can he bounce back like Zuma, whose political obituary has been written many, many times as he lurched from one crisis to another?
In December 2005, Zuma was charged with raping a 31-year-old HIV-positive woman at his home in Gauteng. Zuma denied the charges and claimed that the sex was consensual. In 2009, he went behind the back of his close friend Irvin Khoza, who himself is six years younger than Zuma, and fathered a child with his daughter, barely three months before “the country’s most famous or notorious polygamist” (as one journalist described Zuma) tied the knot for the fifth time. Now, isn’t that out of control — like Malema? Shades of scandal-ridden former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi?
Also like Berlusconi, Zuma has faced serious charges of corruption. In 2005, he was sacked as State Deputy President before being charged himself after his financial adviser Schabir Shaik was convicted for soliciting a bribe in a controversial multibillion dollar 1999 arms deal. Peeling the onion layer by layer, we find that his Presidency has been rocky and scandalous, but all this seems to bounce off him, much to the anger, incomprehension and frustration of many, particularly his political opponents. The charges against Zuma were dropped just weeks before the 2009 election which led to him becoming President, but the decision to drop the charges is currently under review. While “no one is immune to the trials and tribulations of life”, isn’t this too much for a nation to stomach from its leader? How can this be allowed to happen again and again?
But still, the delegates at the ANC conference voted resoundingly for Zuma. What could have informed their decision?
Most likely the secret to Zuma’s survivability lies in this observation made by political analyst Adam Habib that Zuma relates to the poor — and this is partly what won him the hearts at the ANC conference and millions countrywide. Said Habib: “Apart from (Nelson) Mandela, Zuma is the only President who knows how to establish rapport with the party’s ordinary members. He also knows how to play a victim of the urban elite.”
Yes, Zuma has projected himself as a man of the people and one steeped in his Zulu traditions. At public forums, he often bursts into the liberation war song “Umshini wami mshini wami
. . . khawuleth’umshini wami (My machine, my machine . . . Please bring my machine gun), rousing the whole stadium. At traditional gatherings, he discards his Western suits for Zulu animal skin dress and dance, much to the delight of simple rural folk.
But neither must Zuma be let off the hook for his shenanigans and the ANC for the increasingly corrupt system it now represents. People could be voting for the ANC out of a sense of loyalty. What happened at the Mangaung conference could be that the ANC merely closed ranks out of a sense of self-protection and self-interest. It was more of a self-serving ritual, but they can’t take events like these as routine. South Africans need to reboot their political system to tackle growing inequality, poverty and unemployment.
According to renowned South African civil rights activist Mamphela Ramphele, South Africa is now at the 20-year danger point where the likes of Zanu PF in Zimbabwe have ceased to be accountable to the electorate and simply do as they please; where citizens are powerless to challenge the government about failing them. There is need to take meaningful action to stop this rot regardless of politics. Otherwise the freedom flame will be doused — like in Zimbabwe, where things get easily out of control.
The ANC is not South Africa — and South Africa is not the ANC.