Defuse these provincial political land mines before they take us all down

15 April 2018 - 00:00 By barney mthombothi

KwaZulu-Natal, the epicentre of the internecine violence that almost scuppered the 1994 settlement, is again proving to be a problem child for the new South Africa. Politicians are tiptoeing around hidden land mines. When the province was being torn apart by the fight for supremacy between the IFP and the United Democratic Front, there was, however, the hidden hand of the state, which was keen to neutralise the UDF (aligned to the then-banned ANC) and advance the fortunes of the IFP, especially its leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Thousands died.
Buthelezi was promoted at home and abroad as an alternative to the ANC. He was moderate, in favour of the capitalist system and against sanctions, which at the time were an effective international weapon against apartheid South Africa. The ANC, on the other hand, funded from the Soviet Union, was portrayed as a lackey of the Eastern bloc, seen as not waging a genuine liberation struggle as much as doing the bidding of the communists. Its ties with the SACP were the icing on the cake for apartheid spin doctors. Joe Slovo was the Machiavellian bogeyman who directed everything from the shadows. It fitted the apartheid mindset, a white man as the brains behind black mischief. Oliver Tambo and the rest of the ANC leadership were just putty in Slovo's hands.
This sort of narrative, of course, played well in Western capitals, where right-wing conservatism was at its apogee. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher ruled the roost. The Cold War was in full swing.
Under the so-called Reagan Doctrine, the US administration funded "freedom fighters" around the world, essentially right-wing insurgents fighting leftist governments. In Southern Africa, the US supported Jonas Savimbi in Angola, Afonso Dhlakama in Mozambique and Buthelezi in South Africa.
Although the US viewed Buthelezi through the same lens as Savimbi and Dhlakama, its support for him was more moral than material. He was feted almost like a head of state in London and Washington. That boosted his status back home.
But if Buthelezi was to be regarded as a national leader - and if his organisation was to challenge the ANC for dominance - he could not afford to be seen to be playing second fiddle in his own backyard of KwaZulu-Natal. He had to jealously guard his territory. The emergence of the UDF in the early 1980s posed an existential threat to both Buthelezi and the state. It had to be crushed.The state was solidly behind the IFP in its war with UDF affiliates. We now know that IFP members were trained in the Caprivi Strip by the then South African Defence Force, and unleashed to wreak havoc. Some of these killers applied for and were granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Thousands of innocent civilians were maimed and killed in the civil war that raged for years in black townships and rural villages throughout the province. Buthelezi was to hold the country to ransom even after negotiations were concluded at Codesa, refusing to participate in the first democratic elections unless certain conditions were met. If granted, they would almost have been tantamount to allowing KwaZulu-Natal to secede. Thankfully, such demands were not entertained.
The effects of that reign of terror on the populace - and on its psyche - have seemingly been underestimated. Judging by the province's proclivity for violence, the wounds and scars of that era still run deep, and have yet to heal.
There's a sense of foreboding about the province again. This time it's not about two political entities fighting for territory. The IFP has shrivelled into a shadow of its former self; the ANC has become a juggernaut controlling a powerful state and its resources.
This time the fight is essentially over state resources within the same party. People are still dying, albeit not at the same rate as before.
Exacerbating the situation is the contradiction of the province being at once powerful and yet so powerless. It boasts the biggest ANC membership and yet has no one from the province sitting in the upper echelons of the party, a far cry from the past when it had president Jacob Zuma and two other members on the ANC top six.
To make matters worse, the ANC's provincial executive was disbanded following a court ruling, leaving a dangerous vacuum.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's defeat by Cyril Ramaphosa for the ANC leadership, and Zuma's subsequent forced removal from office, have not been taken kindly in the province. Ramaphosa initially seemed to notice that fact, because the first thing he and his executive did after the ANC election was visit the province to pay their respects to King Goodwill Zwelithini. But since then the local belligerents have apparently been left to their own devices.
The mercurial figure that is Zuma, having been forced out of office, has gone home to KwaZulu-Natal nursing a grudge. He's a man on a mission. He's seeking rehabilitation, if not total vindication.
If there was any doubt about Zuma's popularity in KwaZulu-Natal, his rapturous welcome at Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's memorial in Durban this week should have convinced the sceptics. He will be the cancer in the ANC.
KwaZulu-Natal is a special case. It has a particular history that informs its current malady. Ramaphosa should make resolving the tensions in KwaZulu-Natal his absolute priority before they spill over into the wider society...

There’s never been a more important time to support independent media.

From World War 1 to present-day cosmopolitan South Africa and beyond, the Sunday Times has been a pillar in covering the stories that matter to you.

For just R80 you can become a premium member (digital access) and support a publication that has played an important political and social role in South Africa for over a century of Sundays. You can cancel anytime.

Already subscribed? Sign in below.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.