A common narrative has emerged in the wake of the recent local government elections: that the electoral fortunes of the ANC constituted a referendum on President Jacob Zuma’s presidency and that the ANC paid a price in local government for his various scandals. Certainly in the way the campaign was conducted, there was less attention to local questions than the conduct of the president on the one hand, and the supposed white character of the DA on the other.
But is it correct to restrict our focus to the misfortune that Zuma’s leadership undoubtedly signifies for both the ANC and the country as a whole? If we do that, does it mean that getting rid of Zuma is automatically an important step towards regenerating the ANC and restoring the organisation to its “former glory”? Does getting rid of Zuma automatically safeguard and revive democratic institutions and lead to much needed debate on issues of public concern?
The answer to that question lies partly in our agreeing on what it is that needs to be remedied. Can it be said that the problems with Zuma’s leadership are obvious? Can we assume that we have a common understanding of what needs to be remedied in order to “rectify” or in the words of some ANC figures, to “self-correct” the problems currently besetting the organisation, and set it on a fresh course where all that has been stifled will now thrive?
Let us now recall, again, that many of those who now call for Zuma to step down were themselves involved in or did not see anything wrong with his rise to power. Alternatively, these problems have become primarily seen as related to what the Constitutional Court found over Nkandla and the earlier firing of Nhlanhla Nene. If we ensured that what remains of the Nkandla affair were cleaned up, if that is possible, and that the security of tenure of the current Minister of Finance were secured, and possibly also provided Nene with a senior government post, would that remedy the problems with the Zuma era?
No matter how serious and urgent a problem may be, one cannot solve it by taking short cuts. The problems of the Zuma era started before his presidency and were magnified in the period of his leadership. The problems do not derive purely from the Constitutional Court having found that Zuma failed to observe his oath of office and that the markets and currency took a hit after the firing of Nene.
The first thing to note is that Zuma did not become president of the ANC or the country through a coup d’etat. He was not installed by the military but elected to these positions by the ANC and its allies, including the enthusiastic support of those who now disown him, some of whom went so far as declaring their willingness to “kill for Zuma”.
When Zuma was elected he was already facing hundreds of charges of fraud, racketeering and corruption. The High Court had implicated him as a beneficiary in the dealings that saw Shabir Shaik jailed for corruption. His hyperpatriarchal tendencies were already clear, thought they evoked no signs of disapproval from the ANC, SACP or Cosatu, not even from women within the leadership of these organisations. Nor is this the case today, as seen in the reaction of the ANC Women’s League to a dignified protest of women commemorating the 10th anniversary of Zuma’s rape trial, while he was speaking at the IEC.
At that trial he and his supporters conducted themselves in a shameful manner, pummelling the complainant in and outside the court room, demonstrating contempt for gender and sexuality rights, and displaying militarism.
His comrades elected Zuma and he has been sustained throughout the wrongdoing of his office by an outwardly unanimous ANC leadership and ANC parliamentary members. They have greeted him with effusive praise and standing ovations and fawning statements.
Those who are members of parliament were found by the Constitutional Court to have failed in their duties under the Constitution. But what bears on the distance that has now developed between the ANC and its constituency, which has now rebuffed it at the polls, is not simply voting unconstitutionally or allowing the president to act without accountability. How we should understand the rupture in the connection between the ANC and the poorest of the poor goes beyond the actions of Zuma. It is found also in the callousness and contempt that the ANC leadership, at all levels, has shown towards the poorest of the poor, supposedly their core constituency.
We know that some of the Nkandla monies were diverted from what was intended for poverty relief. But what about the more general failure to provide basic needs, in situations where this was realisable? One recalls, for example, in the Gert Sibande municipality how the then Minister of Water Affairs, Edna Molewa, said the water was fit to drink. The tests were challenged and the water was not clean.
When the DA and the press asked her whether she would drink it then, she simply laughed. That laugh signified contempt for the public’s right to clean water. This contemptuous conduct happened in an area named after Gert Sibande, known as ‘”the lion of the East”, one of the greatest heroes of the struggle, a former Treason Trialist, who together with Ruth First had exposed the scandalous treatment of labourers on potato farms in the then Eastern Transvaal, leading to a national potato boycott.
The government also allowed the people of Madibeng to be deprived of water, even when that water was available, and instead turned a blind eye to private contractors supplying water at prices that could not be afforded by a very impoverished people.
Who can forget the former Premier of Gauteng, Nomvula Mokonyane, telling the residents of Bekkersdal that the ANC did not need their “dirty votes”? What did it mean for a representative of a supposed party of the poor to speak of the poor as being dirty?
What about the Freedom Charter’s demand for housing and shelter and the continued eviction of people into the cold winters? What do we say of the defiance of court orders in order to continually evict shack dwellers in eThekwini?
Before we assume that a return to the past will automatically revive a trouble-free ANC that will set us on a constructive course, let us have the humility to ask what made it possible for a man like Zuma to rise to the presidency of the ANC and the country and to practise the abuses he has done. What made it possible for him to do this with the consent, even fervent support of other leaders?
All of us who have been in the ANC leadership need to look at the foundations that were laid and ask whether we took sufficient steps to avert the potential rise to the presidency of a person with the qualities or potential attributes of Zuma.
But for now one thing is clear. It is not Zuma alone who bears responsibility for the losses of the ANC and, more importantly, the misfortunes inflicted on the oppressed people of South Africa, the very people who were supposed to be free from oppression under an ANC government.
To be effective, leadership depends on trust. Leadership needs to earn and enjoy respect. The current ANC leadership has forfeited trust and not only has it lost respect but through its obsequious gestures towards Zuma it has lost any semblance of self-respect.
What is needed now is a broader dialogue and infusion of voices and ideas about our future. The ANC may well be part of this, provided it understands that, in remedying the current situation, there is a need for something more than its own “introspection”. The people of South Africa, wherever they are located, whether they are wealthy or poor, living in shacks or in the plush suburbs, in jobs or unemployed, on the land or landless, need to claim their own future.
It is not for me to prescribe what organisational form this should take. In fact, there may be no existing organisation that can embrace this need and new organisations need to be established. My only suggestion is that the orientation ought to be broad, inclusive and non-sectarian.
The aim should be, among other short and long-term goals, to recover a sense of connection between public representatives, public institutions and the people at large. That can only be achieved where representatives of organisations in or outside public institutions have a sense of compassion, care and responsibility for the plight of the poor and the vulnerable. That has been lost, and that needs more than the removal of Zuma to be recovered.
But the type of democracy we need should not be restricted to public institutions. It ought to include self-empowered people in a range of different sites where they build organisations to realise their needs in a range of ways. Some social movements exist. This is part of a rich tradition that needs to be revived.
Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a former political prisoner for activities in the ANC-led liberation struggle. Currently he is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA and his most recent book is Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2015). He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner