This first appeared in the Daily Maverick online today, 26 April 2024

Thirty years on, South Africans again need to appeal to their better angels

As we ponder 30 years of democracy this weekend, we will do so with mixed feelings. Freedom’s dividends have been a mixture of strange and bitter fruits, yet marked with moments of success and even joy. South Africa at 30 is a noisy place to live and be. At present, we are caught in a pre-election whirlwind. We are scarred, disappointed and jaded. A decade of State Capture will do that.

In 2017, the authoritative Financial Times dedicated its editorial to South Africa. Under the damning headline, “South Africa’s descent into despotism must stop”, it was a serious indictment of the ANC and its failure of leadership under President Jacob Zuma.

Then, it wrote: “Graft has infected all levels of the state. Thanks to the courageous efforts of civil society groups such as Corruption Watch and Save South Africa, the grubby nexus between the Gupta family business empire and President Jacob Zuma’s administration has come into sharper focus.”

That was 2017 and despite some strides that have been made to deal with corruption, there is work to be done, not only to deal with corruption and ensure that criminal prosecutions follow, but also to deepen and defend our Constitution and democracy itself.

In the prologue to their book Enemy of the People, authors Adriaan Basson and Pieter du Toit ask poignantly: “How did a man who swore on 9 May 2009 that he would commit himself ‘to the service of our nation with dedication, commitment, discipline, integrity, hard work and passion’ come to embody everything that is wrong with South Africa?”

They go on to say, “Zuma and his circle of rogue protectors broke not only the country’s spirit and moral fibre but also our hearts.”

Enter then the Ramaphosa presidency in 2018 which promised much but has delivered the same worn-out and corrupt ANC, perhaps predictably so. Can Cyril Ramaphosa, smarmy grin and all, be any more insipid? He has spent a considerable amount of time out of the country in the past few weeks and not many might have noticed.

Yet, in a 2023 Baseline survey (with all the caveats regarding polling, of course), almost 60% of people polled had a positive attitude towards Ramaphosa, with Julius Malema at under 5% — he simply seems to scare most people. And then John Steenhuisen sits at about 23%. The MK party was not part of this survey, so who knows where Zuma would have been on the “positivity” scale?

Be that as it may, Zuma has, since his departure from office, continued to loom like an ugly spectre over South Africa’s political landscape.

Politics of theatre

Does anything attract more publicity (good and bad) than a media story about Zuma or anything with Zuma in the title? He knows that only too well and is adept at the politics of theatre. But he is also a shrewd politician who understands the politics of the ANC like few do and knows where the skeletons are hidden.

His formation of the MK party, itself an anachronistic name in these times, has struck a familiar chord of grievance, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, where tribalism remains entrenched in many parts.

In Trump-esque style he has threatened to destroy the ANC and come back into power in some way, and has held sway in KZN and Mpumalanga and wherever there is an ANC vacuum of power. Zuma and his motley crew of constitutional vandals, after all, still threaten to tear down the edifice of this democracy rather than face the test of accountability.

He has threatened journalists and, with the help of equally opportunistic lawyers, sought to undermine the judiciary by stretching the courts to the limits of their powers and endurance.

In July 2021, we watched in horror as our country burnt following Zuma’s arrest. As we witnessed people queueing for food and petrol, trucks being escorted by the SANDF and hospitals burning, we fully understood that Zuma and his rogue supporters and all those who continue to enable his assault on our democracy, truly are enemies of the people. 

Zuma and his decade of capture, which enabled the large-scale looting of the state, is the most graphic symptom of a party that had lost its moorings. As far back as 2005, then secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe said the “cancer of corruption is eating away at our party”.

Now, given its ethical bankruptcy, the ANC remains unable to steer public debate on the crises we face; it is mostly in a state of disarray, given the factionalism and corruption.

The Zuma years, in particular, were rooted in a dangerous anti-intellectualism that persists. In the cause of populism, Zuma joked about “clever blacks” at rallies and the Presidency itself became an empty shell. Today, the ANC’s so-called battle of ideas is safely a “battle of factions”.

Is it any surprise, therefore, that Zuma has started the MK party, one which surely gives the ANC some nightmares? All polling predicts that the ANC will not reach 50% in next month’s election. (Having said that, one should never underestimate the ANC’s ability to get its vote out and to tug at what little is left of its supporters’ nostalgia — and of course to use the resources of the state to sway voters).

The Brenthurst Foundation’s polling has Zuma’s nascent party at 13%. It seems entirely unlikely that this will be the case, yet the markets immediately responded negatively to this. The fear is that the ANC goes into coalition with the likes of the MK party and/or the EFF. 

Time for democratic maturity

Most recently, the Electoral Court set aside the Electoral Commission’s decision to disqualify Zuma in terms of section 47(1)(e) of the Constitution. Predictably, this decision has unleashed a barrage of criticism against the IEC.

All manner of anti-constitutional rhetoric has been spewed forth on social media and elsewhere, lashing out at the IEC, calling for Commissioner Janet Love’s resignation and saying it is all a complicated plot to keep Zuma gaining some formal political power.

Like Donald Trump, he claims the game is rigged. Ironically, Zuma was happy to accept the Electoral Court outcome in his favour and did not cry foul then. The IEC has made it clear that there is no reason whatsoever for Love to resign. Capitulating to such calls would cause the IEC irreparable harm. And Zuma and his minions are well schooled in the theatrical chaos of destruction.

There is absolutely no basis for anyone to be casting aspersions on the integrity of the IEC or to be calling for anyone’s resignation. As the institution which safeguards our elections, it has every right to appeal against a ruling of the Electoral Court. Equally, those who cast aspersions on the court would do well to exercise restraint until the reasons for the ruling have been given. There is a need to call for these urgently, as Freedom Under Law has done.

The IEC has run successive elections freely and fairly in a challenging political environment complicated by South Africa’s vastness, its rural-urban divide as well as its socioeconomic inequality. It has done so, not perfectly, but with integrity and calm. As South Africans, we trust the process. This democratic asset cannot be underestimated.

This is our most contested election since 1994, so we need to take extra care; in the way we speak about our institutions, the way we monitor the work of the IEC (kudos to the faith-based leaders and other NGOs and affiliates, ready to observe the elections and ensure fair processes), and the way the media must be allowed to report freely and fairly on the elections.

Equally, the media must guard itself from falling into the trap of repeating political party and party leaders’ talking points, as it did with the IEC seeking clarity from the Constitutional Court on the Electoral Court’s ruling on section 47(1)e. Most media headlines repeated the Zuma talking points about this being a malicious appeal to stymie his chances of holding office.

This is a moment that calls for clarity of thinking and democratic maturity. We cannot expect this from Zuma and his acolytes. They are not in the business of defending democracy. After all, Zuma spent a decade destroying institutions. Why would he act any differently now?

Again, like Trump, he is a desperate politician who still finds his back against the proverbial wall. The only playbook he has is to destroy and break down to serve his own interests. 

Complicated country

But we must be wary of making this election only about Zuma even while keeping watch and defending our democracy from the existential threat that he remains. In so many ways, at 82, he is yesterday’s man, yet Zuma’s own comparison of the ANC to the Second Coming does set the stage for his “resurrection-style politics”.

But the way that plays out is for voters to decide. It is not inconceivable, however, that Zuma’s role is amplified, especially in KZN, which remains a hotbed for all manner of charlatans — and yes, the stoking of violence. Some are speculating about the premiership, which would be destructive and dangerous. 

But there are other stories in this election, as many as there are layers to our complicated and bewildering country: stories of a broken ANC — of which Zuma and Malema’s EFF are the broken pieces — and the bitty Tripartite Alliance, the grand casualty of first the Mbeki years and then the final denouement in the Zuma years; of attempts to rebuild and rise, pockets of decent opposition, and above all, of a country crying out for something different and mostly just making its own way. 

The low voter registration percentage tells its own story. We may wake up after 29 May with a very different political landscape. It will then be important for us to sift the rhetoric and for those in power to keep cool heads and make sensible decisions in the best interests of the country — if we find ourselves in the scenario of a coalition.

Will Ramaphosa then step up and take a principled stand on coalition politics? Will he be allowed to do so by his venal party — because how long will the ANC tolerate him in power before its 2027 elective conference? Will the sensible centre-ground prevail? Who will be mature enough to hold it in a coalition scenario?

It is not far-fetched to think of some rather unedifying scenarios. Thirty years on, we will have to try to find the better angels of our nature — again. DM