As SA wakes from the Zuma nightmare, there are hard lessons to be learnt

18 February 2018 - 00:00
TOTAL RECALL  Former president Thabo Mbeki and his former deputy, Jacob Zuma, after Mbeki's state of the nation speech  in June  1999.    Picture: AFP
TOTAL RECALL Former president Thabo Mbeki and his former deputy, Jacob Zuma, after Mbeki's state of the nation speech in June 1999. Picture: AFP

Nearly 10 years after the September 2008 recall of then-president Thabo Mbeki, the ANC has recalled another sitting president. History will record these events - Mbeki's 2008 recall and that of Jacob Zuma this week - as a continuum in a chapter of fluctuating pluses and minuses in the national liberation movement's fitful contention with corruption as one of the centrifugal forces that have shaped much of post-colonial Africa.

However one looks at it, Zuma has been recalled for the same reason for which Mbeki dismissed him from the position of deputy president of the republic in June 2005: his alleged involvement in corruption.

In a cruel twist of irony, it was to shield Zuma from prosecution for his alleged involvement in corruption that the ANC jettisoned Mbeki in 2008; more specifically, to pave the way for the then national director of public prosecutions, Mokotedi Mpshe, to quash Zuma's corruption charges. The Mbeki presidency was correctly seen as a stumbling block in the realisation of that nefarious outcome.

The Zuma presidency would prove to be at best lacklustre and at worst the embodiment of a grotesque and harrowing passage in Gabriel García Márquez's novel The Autumn of the Patriarch: "That palace ... in the grand disorder of which it was impossible to locate the government."

After nearly a decade of the nightmare, made manifest by the fusion of the grand disorder and a 19th-century postulation that history and personages occur twice, "the first time as tragedy, the second as farce", the ANC was finally compelled to remove Zuma from the Union Buildings this week.

Albatross around ANC's neck

The negative impact of Zuma's ascension to the presidencies of the ANC and the republic, his and Mbeki's recalls, their management and mismanagement, have and will continue to take their toll on the ANC.

The courts have since declared the Mpshe decision invalid, and, in a separate and earlier ruling, mercilessly made mincemeat of Judge Chris Nicholson's judgment on which the ANC purported to rely when it removed Mbeki.

It did not help matters that a substantial part of the allegations, real or perceived, that will soon serve before Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo's Commission on State Capture, seem to implicate Zuma, at least in dereliction of duty; insofar as he appears not to have fully appreciated the responsibility that rested on his shoulders as the Head of State, to confront them head-on, and with the obligatory speed and seriousness.

To rationalise its bad choices, the ANC has to lower itself to embrace the defects of the leaders it has chosen as its own defects
Joel Netshitenzhe

The Zuma presidency thus became an albatross around the neck of the ANC, one that would impair its ability to execute its mandate and negatively impact on its public standing and therefore its electability.

As ANC leader Joel Netshitenzhe noted - before it was fashionable to speak in these terms - in 2012: "A defective leadership not only holds back the attainment of national objectives. It also presents a difficult conundrum for the movement: in that, to rationalise its bad choices, the ANC has to lower itself to embrace those defects of the leaders it has chosen as its own defects.

"Steadily, these defects of the individual leaders become by default the collective property of the organisation, its own blind spots and its subliminal attributes in the public imagination."

Thus the ANC found itself indistinguishable from Zuma's excesses - and having to defend them.

The opposition did not have to do much. Zuma became the kind of low-hanging fruit that any opposition wishes for as the leader of a governing party.

Bogged down in defensiveness, the ANC failed to break any new intellectual ground. Instead, it morphed into a populist formation that increasingly relied on its numerical strength rather than the persuasive force of its views.

The August 2016 local government elections served as a most visible illustration of this reality -the figurative maturation of the rot in the state of Denmark.

Rattled and bewildered by the loss of key metros in particular, the ANC set out on a "listening campaign", which it claimed would assist to address the concerns of its support base and the population. But lo and behold, it listened only in the breach.

It would take the outcome of the organisation's December 2017 national elective conference to weaken Zuma's stranglehold on the party and the government to produce the recall we witnessed this week.

Victimhood narrative

Does Zuma's recall promise the end to the ANC's and South Africa's woes? Put differently, is Zuma the sole progenitor and author of all our problems?

Such a conclusion would be as unfair as it would be simplistic.

If the pejorative appraisal of Zuma in Ronnie Kasrils's A Simple Man partly explains Zuma, this means successive generations of ANC leadership collectives, its membership and the people of South Africa must take responsibility for promoting him to the heights of the party and the country's presidencies and keeping him there when it was so glaringly obvious that he did not possess in sufficient stock the moral, political, intellectual and other attributes required to lead a country beset with as intricate and intractable a set of challenges as South Africa is.

Zuma's post 2005 promoters in and outside the ANC must shoulder greater responsibility. They aided his mythomaniac enterprise for various reasons - the lure of political office for some and possibly the desire to consign the ANC to its deathbed for others. From this misadventure issued his victimhood narrative and other artful manoeuvres whose thorns we are harvesting today.

Among the many lessons we should draw, as a movement and a country, is that we should rethink many things, including positions that, on the strength of the dictates of theory and the imperatives of practice, other African liberation movements resolved as long ago as the 1950s and '60s but which some sections of the ANC continue to approach, more religiously than with reason.

For example, in his pamphlet "Party Principles and Political Practice", Amílcar Cabral, the revolutionary leader of the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC ), insisted that "Collective leadership does not mean that everyone must [lead], and that there is no longer any authority. Some think: 'If we must [lead], then let's [lead] even if we have no idea how to [lead], just to give the appearance that everyone [leads]'...

"Even if it is not necessary to be a doctor to [lead] in our party, we must not forget that there are some tasks which cannot be done by someone who cannot read or write. Otherwise we are fooling ourselves and we must never fool ourselves. There are some tasks which can or cannot be done according to educational level."

Implicit in Cabral's thesis is that even among the best educated, decisions about individual and leadership collectives are best determined, among others by outcomes of assessment of specific skills sets and other attributes relative to the challenges a party and society face at any given period.

Contempt for South Africans

The cumulative effect of the ANC's embrace and ownership of Zuma's defective leadership was most uncomfortably visible this week. The party could not explain the reasons for Zuma's recall - in fact, it refused to do so - because there would inevitably follow this charge: "You have known about this all along, did nothing and protected him. What has changed?"

Zuma himself did not help matters when, in an interview with the SABC on Wednesday afternoon and his resignation speech later that night, he pleaded ignorance about why any soul would possibly dream of recalling him from office, and went on to claim victimisation, as is his wont.

History repeating itself?

“We have also worked continuously to combat the
twin challenges of crime and corruption, to ensure
that all our people live in conditions of safety and
security. We must admit that we are still faced with
many challenges in this regard.”-Thabo Mbeki,
in his speech resigning as 
president on September 21 2008

He inspired uncomfortable recollections of Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, aka Comical Ali, the Iraqi minister of information, who earned the caricature in 2003 thanks to his spirited but futile propaganda even as it was obvious that Baghdad was about to fall to the invading US army.

Whereas Sahhaf's conduct could arguably be explained by his defence of the motherland against foreign invasion, Zuma's tragi-comical output was characteristically self-serving, plain and simple.

Those two performances, the SABC interview and the public address, especially when he spoke of his desire to unite the ANC, his respect for the constitution and the law and the need for a proper handover from him to President Cyril Ramaphosa - the essence of which turned out to be his parent-like introduction of Ramaphosa to intergovernmental and international bodies - revealed more of his contempt for South Africans than they concealed. By what right could Zuma, of all people, speak of unity, respect for the constitution and the law and a smooth handover, one wondered?

For the ANC, what is concerning is not that it exudes the same contempt by flatly refusing to explain the reasons for Zuma's recall, but that it continues to fail to come to terms with its complicity in Zuma's wreckage of itself and the country, and the need to own up to the people for this complicity.

It may come back to haunt the ANC because the prevarication helps to shelter and nourish the problem that Zuma embodies, and prevents it from being quarantined and cured.

'Two centres of power' hoax

Equally concerning, and partly a result of the ANC's refusal to explain the reasons for Zuma's recall, is its impulse to continue fanning out rhetoric and platitudes that bind and blind, to borrow from Wole Soyinka.

Political economy has long held that human society is a theatre of contending social and political forces that do battle to define society in their own image. In this connection, there is conceptually no society that is imbued with one centre of power.

In South Africa, government policy derives from the ANC manifesto, the January 8 statement that is in turn refined by the party's lekgotla following the statement, after which it is processed in the government policy architecture - which is, in any case, led by the ANC.

Thus the current rhetoric and platitude of two centres of power may also come back to bite the ANC because, as Zuma did when he successfully used the ANC to seek refuge from the law in the Presidency, it may come to form part of the diversion the ill-intentioned use to gain power, with disastrous consequences for the country.

It has not yet been suggested that there existed a "two centres of power" problem between Nelson Mandela and Mbeki when Mandela stepped down as president of the ANC in 1997, with them continuing to serve as president and deputy president of the republic. The supposed problem of two centres of power arose during the Mbeki presidency of the republic and Zuma's leadership of the party. Nobody has as yet suggested that the problem arose between Zuma and Kgalema Motlanthe when Motlanthe became president of the republic after Mbeki's recall.

In his 2012 authorised biography, by Ebrahim Harvey, Motlanthe admitted that the Polokwane ANC conference did not usher in "real unity because we were united as a lobby group and not as a movement". This observation reveals the "two centres of power" narrative for the hoax that it is.

Undeniably, each leader will bring their unique style of leadership to bear. It is not at all apparent that the intricate structure and workings of government in a constitutional democracy with various and competing social interests and loci of power throughout society easily lend themselves to a monolithic centre of power.

Finally, the fact that Zuma's and the ANC's command of political power has not made the former's corruption charges disappear tells us something about the workings and limits that differently disposed centres of power place on one another in a constitutional democracy inasmuch as it illustrates the consequences of certain (mis)adventures on the part of individuals, leadership collectives, political institutions and whole countries in a plural and diverse setting.

The leader or political party that loses sight of this fact of life does so at their own peril.

Ratshitanga was Mbeki's spokesman at the time of Mbeki's recall in 2008