The latest developments around former president Jacob Zuma most certainly do not represent South Africa’s finest hour. In fact, it’s questionable whether the country’s already much deteriorated political culture could have sunk lower, marked by increasing political, moral, and social deterioration, open disregard for the law and the rule of law, and now even a judiciary that appears to be wavering.
It’s something of a worldwide phenomenon these days. America had its January 6 occupation of Capitol Hill “in defence of democracy”; South Africa had its July 2021 occupation of Nkandla in the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal “in defence of justice for Zuma”. Both are of course absurd nonsense. But the rest of the world is less our concern than what is reflected by events at Nkandla. And while it’s easy to dismiss it as nonsense, what’s happening in South Africa does not come without cause and specific dynamics that shape and define it. It demands intense national introspection and a pushing of the re-set button for a fresh new start to avoid the slide to total disaster.
Roll back the clock of time to the mid-1990s when the world once praised South Africa for its exemplary new political culture of dignified, inclusive tolerance and reconciliation embraced equally by its leaders and its people as they strove to build a non-racial, non-sexist, and economically thriving South Africa that could shake off its oppressive past.
The country was commended for crafting and implementing “the best” Constitution in the world; for the post-1994 “miracle” of a “rainbow nation” emerging peacefully from the ashes of apartheid; for a successful free and fair first democratic election; for placing its post-apartheid economy on a growth path that could potentially lift millions from poverty; and for its newfound political culture setting the example for the rest of the world, and particularly for Africa.
What happened to all of that? Simply answered, it’s a case of a wonderfully promising political culture that has horribly lost its way. The burning question that should painfully concern every South African is, can it be retrieved? And who or what is to blame?
With the focus this last decade having been so overwhelmingly on former president Zuma’s “nine lost years”, state capture, and shocking levels of corruption, and subsequently on the battle of ANC factions and leaders arising from that, and now Zuma’s dangerous and selfish stay-out-of-jail spectacle, we have completely lost sight of what had been happening to our socio-political culture. On all fronts.
Blame can be apportioned to many particular aspects and segments of our society, but probably rests as much with the people of South Africa in general as with our political parties and their leaderships, especially the three largest ones. While our media has been valiantly active in uncovering state capture and corruption, it arguably neglected its potential probing and informative role in respect of the current very unhealthy political culture that evolved. Take the latest events at Nkandla where the media has been more focused on the spectacle than on highlighting the ominous underlying issues and motive forces.
Constitutional institutions set up as watchdogs are under attack while some also arguably failed us at times. At least one is unable to function without judicial and parliamentary intervention and has become something of a joke. The shining exception has been the judiciary… up until now, that is. For in the case of Zuma, after initially proving its independent mettle, it now appears to be wavering under political pressure and threats of mass violence, and its justice no longer seems to be applied equally to all. Powerful politicians seem to be afforded more opportunities to escape accountability and punishment than would ever be granted to ordinary citizens. No ordinary South African convicted and sentenced by the apex court would be given a second hearing like Zuma has. George Orwell warned us many moons ago that in a state like ours has become, some animals are more equal than others.
There are many factors that have in the last 27 years played into this state of affairs. But one need only look at the actions and positions of our three largest political parties and their leaders to see the symptoms and evidence of our situation, and to understand how far we have strayed from our 1994 democratic ideals. After all, between the three of them, they “govern” South Africa.
Let’s start with the Democratic Alliance (DA). This party, created almost in tandem with the emergence of our new democracy, once held so much promise, which at one stage was reflected in its phenomenal growth. It captured the Western Cape and many municipalities and proved its governing excellence, while racially it was the most inclusive and representative party of all. Then it all started going to hell with stubborn intransigence around inflexible ideology and factional agendas – the old versus the new – infused with toxic racial divergence.
While it busily and virulently attacked the ANC over its factionalism and the degenerate impacts associated with it, the DA was itself falling into that trap – the pot calling the kettle black. Factions were showing themselves and were actively at war with each other – the old-school white liberals versus the young black “upstarts” who sought a different direction. The increasingly inward- and backward-looking DA – or an influential controlling faction at the least – instead spawned its own destructive episodes – Lindiwe Mazibuko, Patricia de Lille, Helen Zille, Mmusi Maimane, Herman Mashaba, among others.
And instead of always criticising and breaking down the ANC and its leaders (state capture and corruption excluded), it should perhaps have played a more constructive role, giving praise when deserved and extending an olive branch or helping hand in the spirit of the 1990s CODESA to help the young democracy find its feet and grow with healthy confidence. Constantly ostracising and bad-mouthing the ANC or its leader in a country where cooperation and inclusivity would be key, did nothing to help prevent the ANC’s slide into corrupt misrule and taking the country down with it. It only thickened that party’s skin and added more blinkers to its eyes, making the DA indirectly complicit in the crime.
Increasingly the DA’s racial underwear was showing. Maimane was correct as DA leader to want to take the party on a path more acceptable to South Africa’s black African majority without which future growth would not be possible. But his methods, words and pace of change were perhaps not always sensitive enough to the fears, aspirations and interests of the party’s traditional white and coloured supporters. The old-school liberals – mainly white – used the gap and tried to seize back control and return the party to its (white) liberal-democratic roots, and a coterie of new black leaders left in disgust.
At the same time the DA’s white (mostly Afrikaner) base felt more and more side-lined and neglected. Since then, the DA’s slogan of an “open opportunity society for all” rang hollow, and the result was clearly seen in the 2019 general election when the party shed significant support. On the “right”, whites left to support the narrow race and class-based Freedom Front Plus, while on the “left” the DA’s newly recruited urban black middle-class supporters flocked back to the ANC, which in turn shed substantial support to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) or who decided to give politics a miss altogether. Recent by-election results suggest the defections are continuing, but the forthcoming municipal elections will provide a much better indication either way.
The DA’s biggest crime is the extent to which it in effect contributed through its own internal dramas to the undermining and erosion of the moderate centre in South Africa that it was supposedly representing. Without this centre, stability, good governance, and economic growth will flounder, as it already has. And it will deliver the country to more polarisation and extremism, with the biggest threat being on the left as the right’s growth potential is much more limited.
Economic Freedom Fighters
Meanwhile the EFF’s political growth trajectory has been firmly cast in a militaristically militant, racial-nationalist, and racist mould reminiscent of the erstwhile white right-wing Afrikaner-Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) – the last thing a country like South Africa needs at this juncture. Claiming a kind of ideological philosophy based on a mishmash and often misguided interpretation of Fanonian Marxism, the party is really more deserving of a racial right-wing fascist label than one depicting it as a non-discriminatory socialist left-wing party.
In true fascist style the EFF has gained notoriety and prominence with its headline-grabbing thuggery in Parliament, its open defiance of laws and the rule of law, the often-criminal conduct of its leaders, its aggressive racism, its bussed-in large-stadium mass rallies, and its jackboot-style confrontations with other groups. This has resulted in the support of impressionable young and hopelessly impoverished people, even if this noisy, lawless party has delivered absolutely nothing of substance other than political theatre to those whose best interests it claims to represent.
It is a party that disrespects the Constitution except when it can be abused for its own advantage. It is a party that engages in illegal actions like land invasions, whose leaders incite, from the comfort of their luxury cars and homes, their hapless followers to take the law into their own hands, just as it has now again done with its open defiance of the Covid-19 level 4 lockdown. There are many aspects of the lockdown measures that any responsible party can and should take on through political debate and representation, but never by exposing its followers in unprotected mass gatherings to the deadly consequences of a virulent pandemic.
Reminiscent of events in pre-WWII Germany and Italy, the EFF frequently acts outside the law, with seeming impunity, either because it has cowered its opponents or they misguidedly don’t care enough. It invades and occupies land belonging to others; it attacks and assaults journalists, police officers of the “wrong” colour, other politicians, and those who differ with it politically; and incites racism and violence, all with unbelievably little if any legal consequence. How long if at all would such political thuggery be tolerated in any stable, functioning constitutional democracy that adheres to the rule of law in this 21st century?
African National Congress
Finally, we come to the ANC. There’s not much more one can say that has not already been written or seen, with the latest events around Zuma at Nkandla painting the perfect, depressing picture of what the ANC has become. Gripped by criminality, corruption, material greed, factionalism, a delivery void, bad policies, patronage and cadre deployment, economic deterioration, disdain for the Constitution, growing disrespect for the judiciary, and straying far from its non-racial roots during, but even before, the “nine wasted years” under Zuma’s custodianship, the latter has been replaced by a politically impotent president.
Impotent not so much by his own choice than because of his party’s circumstances. He has good intentions and ideas and makes the right, mostly unfulfilled promises, but he is trapped by his party’s factional wars, competing ideologies and personal agendas, power struggles, and the ever-looming big shadow of corruption that keeps him busy and his eye off the ball of development and growth. In his defence, the pandemic has not been very helpful, but neither has it been well managed.
The hypocrisy of events at Nkandla speaks volumes. At Marikana a threatening stick-wielding crowd belonging to a labour union with no ANC affiliation saw police not hesitating to brutally open fire and kill many. At Nkandla, a violence-threatening crowd armed with spears and sticks and illegally firing shots into the air, many dressed in either traditional warrior outfits or military combat fatigues, are treated with kid gloves, with police hardly visible and those who were there meekly backing off because they are the ANC’s people.
And while Ramaphosa and police minister Bheki Cele threaten to arrest, imprison and fine any member of the public found to not obey the lockdown regulations, this apparently does not apply to the large crowd that gathered at Nkandla. Ramaphosa’s silence regarding the drama at Nkandla is deafening; he is the president of both his party and the country, and both are being destabilised by those very events.
The currently governing ANC is so weakened and corrupted by divisions that it simply cannot govern. But if it were to split, it is unlikely that either faction-based new party would garner sufficient support to govern. That’s when we will be delivered either to the likes of the EFF – which showed the biggest growth in 2019 – or unholy alliances will be entered into such as we have seen at municipal level. And not even the clairvoyants among us can tell what further gruesome price we will have to pay.
This then is the sorry state in which South Africa finds itself. And with the three largest parties representing 89% of all voters in 2019, it should be up to them and their leaders to come to their senses and end the political and moral rot. It is time for South Africans to get together again as in the CODESA era, do some serious introspection, compromise and find the solutions sealed in a social compact, and hit the re-set button. If not, this democracy will disintegrate, and the country will become a failed state. It’s time to take back our political culture of the 1990s in order that we may have a future.
Stef Terblanche is an independent Cape Town-based political analyst/consultant and journalist.