Many people know of men and women who have been in battle trenches together, conventional troops or cadres of liberation struggles. Soldiers tend to share deep bonds deriving from proximity to death and dangerous common experiences. Often, promises are made: ‘if one of us dies; please take my last letter to my family’. Often, the survivor will travel long distances to speak to the family about the last moments of a comrade. It helps both family and survivor to achieve some measure of closure.
Following this long established practice, President Jacob Zuma, is reported to have honoured a promise made between himself and Shadrack Maphumulo. If one were to die, the survivor undertook that the other’s family would be cared for. In honouring this, Zuma ‘handed over a large house’ to the family of Maphumulo, an MK operative, gunned down by apartheid forces in Swaziland in 1986. He, like Zuma, had served 10 years on Robben Island and left the country when police closed in on underground activities he had resumed after release.
As Zuma handed over the new house, the community expressed unhappiness. It is easy to dismiss this as envy. It would also be simple to say, Zuma has every right to honour his promise and leave it there. Despite the booing, some community members said they were happy for the Maphumulo family and did not begrudge the house. Yet, there was a big ‘but’ as demonstrated in placards displayed with words including ‘Why only the Maphumulo family, we are all poor here?’
There are awkward and delicate questions which arise in this commitment made to a fallen comrade. Zuma is not any former soldier but President of South Africa. He has shared his life with many people and undertaken personal obligations. He has survived some of the worst times. But how he fulfils his personal commitments has implications that go far beyond him. That does not mean he should not do as he believes he should by his comrades.
The incident relates to wider questions about use of resources, access and influence by those who hold power. If we look closely at this delicate matter, there are uncomfortable questions that arise not necessarily about honouring the promise made but most critically, how this is done.
Immediately one sees patronage in operation. Patronage is a worldwide phenomenon. But if we aim to free ourselves, whatever powerful people want to do must be achieved within the rules of the particular political or economic activity. Patronage means, in contrast, that procedures are overridden or bypassed or undermined or subverted by the power of some people, especially in relation to individuals who are their clients or beneficiaries.
But still wider questions arise. Whenever provision is made to compensate those who served in the liberation struggle or families that survive there is protest from some quarters. Yet it remains true that many who sacrificed other opportunities in order to fight for freedom have not been compensated. Where payment is made, it is often inconsistent, in that comparable experiences are often dealt with differently and generally a minimal amount is offered. Many returned from exile with families expecting financial support. Some are now big earners or hold office; some have no work and survive on the pensions of their grandparent(s) and are resented as burdens on their families. Many who were repeatedly detained or worked underground in the struggle ‘inside’ for one or other reason do not qualify for compensation.
Remedying this problem cannot be personalised in a manner that creates new problems. Insofar as contacts are used, who are these contacts and what are the benefits derived from providing services for Zuma or others with political clout? To build the R 350,000 house for Maphumulo’s family, Zuma enlisted contacts, through the Zuma RDP Education Trust, in particular Seth Phalatse, around whose name there have been question marks.
The way this was addressed demonstrates reluctance or seeming inability to act in a regularised manner. Patronage networks appear to be the preferred route. Patronage is not simply networking where one legitimately uses contacts in order to achieve specific goals in business or politics or sport or other areas of human activity. Networking is a valid activity to achieve one or other goal. It is quite legitimate to consult others in order to marshall support for some position in an organisation or to achieve some economic goal.
Patronage is anti-democratic in that it is exercised somewhere that we do not see and in relation to people who may not be visible and relates to benefits that we may not know are available and may not be seen to have derived from that power.
If we are to defend and advance our democratic gains and economic development there must be integrity in politics and allocation of resources. Bypassing the rules undermines any attempt to answer expectations that are in fact valid. It is an obstacle in the way of broad emancipation.
Whatever the pain and hardship of the Maphumulo family, the matter must be addressed in a regularised manner. No one should have reason to ask, ‘why a house to the family of Shadrack Maphumulo?!’ Would Maphumulo have wanted the promise to be honoured under circumstances which create resentment in the community?
Raymond Suttner is a part-time visiting Professor at Rhodes University and emeritus professor at UNISA. He is a former political prisoner, underground operative and leader in the ANC and SACP. He is currently researching on Chief Albert Luthuli and various current issues.