Zuma: Going the full Mugabe

Rian Malan writes on the President’s disturbing speech rationalising his sacking of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene

Like all South Africans, I woke up this morning to great lamentations and gnashings of teeth about president Zuma’s decision to, um, redeploy minister of finance Nhlanhla Nene. All commentators agreed it was a shockingly bad move. Most speculated it had something to do with Mr. Nene’s determination to control spending and block projects that seem dear to the presidential heart – the purchase of SAA Airbuses through mysterious third parties, for instance, or the fiscally suicidal Russian nuclear power deal.

But as of this writing, nobody is paying much attention to the speech Zuma made immediately after his fateful move against Nene. This is a pity, because it was an extraordinary address, delivered without benefit of the written material over which Zuma so frequently stumbles. This time, he looked his audience in the eye and spoke off the cuff for fifty-odd minutes. And what he said was….well. In his own estimation, it was “most historic.” One got the impression that the president felt he had crossed a threshold, and needed to explain himself. 

His story began with the birth of humankind in Africa, proceeded to the evils of colonialism and slavery, and ended with a lecture on the absolute necessity for full economic freedom. (Last I checked, this was EFF terrain, but Zuma is clearly moving to occupy it.) Nhlanhla Nene was not mentioned by name, but there were several veiled references to Africans who don’t know who they are and might not even realize they are serving the enemy. Africans who don’t understand what true freedom means, and are thus doomed to dance to the tune of those who hold economic power.

So, click here for a glimpse into the wounded heart of an African peasant who believes (or would have us believe) that history justifies what was done to Nene yesterday.

If you don’t have fifty minutes to spare, here is a transcript of the most telling portions of the presidential address, with the odd comment from your humble narrator.

The scene is a hotel banquet room somewhere in South Africa. The SABC video clip above fails to state the exact nature of this gathering, but the attendees are mostly black and well-dressed. One gathers that they are business people from various parts of Africa. Master of Ceremonies Patrice Motsepe seems to believe that Zuma is dropping in to give them a pep talk about the need to stimulate intra-African trade, but the president’s mind is elsewhere. “I am sorry I am late,” he says on arrival. “There are things that you cannot postpone.”

Like firing your finance minister, for instance.

Zuma’s speech starts in the customary way. There are some pages on his podium. He squints at them, reads the greetings and salutations in the usual wooden manner, and then puts the written word aside. Perhaps he’s thinking about what he’s just done, and about the savagely negative reaction likely to follow. Perhaps he feels he has to offer some clues as to his motive. Why not? The TV cameras are on. The audience is friendly. He clears his throat and says, “Let me say something as a child of this continent.”

Africa is big, he says. Very big. “This continent is the biggest in the world,” he says. “It is not even separated by a river. Rivers that flow through the continent, they don’t cut it into a half, or a quarter. All continents put together will fit into Africa.”

Africa is the cradle of humankind, and also --“some say” -- the cradle of civilization. “Recently I got to know that one of the contributors in the bible, uPaul, is an African born in Sudan,” says the president. “There are many stories that because of our history we are not told.”

But Zuma wants to tell those stories now. “All the challenges of the world have faced the black person,” he says. The first was slavery. “It was the harshest system and it was imposed on us more than on anybody else. And because economy is an important thing, that free labour of the slaves made an important contribution to the economy of other people.”

After slavery came colonialism, which involved a group of Europeans meeting in Germany to divide Africa amongst themselves. “’Let us not fight,’ they said to each other. ‘You will have your own piece and do whatever you want.” And thereafter, “The land was taken, political power was taken away, economic power was taken away, the social being was undermined. We just remained almost like articles of commodity.”

“The colonists wanted to change us from what we were to something almost like their own image,” he says. “Make us hate ourselves and our way of life. And wish to be like them.”

Colonialism gave rise to the liberation struggle, in which Jacob Zuma was of course a participant. “Those of us who were struggling went through another difficult period,” he says. “So you were banned because you were bad individuals. Then if you wouldn’t listen you’ll be arrested, tortured badly. In the process, if you are not lucky, tortured to death. You must all know about a man named Biko. Your life was not worth anything.”

“I am giving this background,” he says, “because it is important for us to understand who we are and what we need to do, because sometimes understanding is limited.”

At this point, the president wanders into a digression about natives whose understanding of themselves is deformed by exposure to white culture. He’d earlier made a few cracks about assimilados and civilisees– educated blacks in French or Portuguese colonies who were admitted to white society on the strength of good table manners (truly) and mastery of the imperial language. Now he turns on similar creatures in the deep south.

“If you were in South Africa and you were able to be educated a very little – Standard 6 – you were then a better African and exempted from the laws that governed the natives and given a different identity that gave you some little privileges.”

Such creatures survive to this day, apparently, and might even be coterminous with the “clever blacks” whose attacks on his person have previously upset the president. “One of the things that in this country makes me feel very agitated is when I realize we don’t realize who we are,” he says. “We don’t realize what we have – this thing we call freedom. We don’t even understand that we have not got complete freedom.”

The trouble with blacks who fail to understand their true situation is that they are open to manipulation, warns the president. “Those you call your enemy can then divide you and use some of us against us.”

“In the past it was crude methods. Today it could be sophisticated methods. You may not even know you are playing a role to help those who are not your friends.”

Does Zuma have his ex-finance minister in mind here? Nene, as we know, is an urbane chap who uses big words, wears tailored suits and boasts several diplomas from imperialist universities. Perhaps he failed to realize that balancing budgets, querying wasteful expenditure and worrying about SA’s credit rating made him an unwitting enemy of his own people.

Zuma proceeds to share his own view of economics. “I am not a businessman or a professor,” he quips, “but I am rebelling against (the idea that) what determines the value of a commodity is the law of supply and demand. I am against that definition. The value of a commodity is the labour time taken in production of that commodity. That’s what determines the value of a commodity.”

Well, yes. The East Germans once priced their copper according to this Marxist formula, concluding that the labour value of socialist copper was 18 times higher than the world price as determined by the capitalist law of supply and demand. And then struggled to understand why nobody wanted to buy their copper. Hopefully Zuma will be more successful at amending the laws of nature.

“We must reverse what happened in the past,” says the president. “What is the real power that you can choose? Hey? You can have political power and starve to death with it. Political power is driven by those who have economic power. If they do not like a particular leader, that leader will be killed in a coup. Or arrested. Those who have economic power….say something they don’t like, they kill you. What happened to Lumumba?”

Beyond this point, Zuma begins to sound uncannily like Julius Malema. “Freedom without economic freedom is not full freedom,” he declares. “If they have the economic power and you hold the political power, you are going to dance to their music. They will even tell you what laws to make and not to make with your political power. “ That’s why President Zuma is now fully committed to the achievement of economic freedom.

“I take this journey we have decided to take today as one of the most historic and important journeys,” he concludes. “I have said what I have said because I want us to be conscious about it because if we are not conscious we will be very indecisive, weak. We need to take it as a struggle to liberate. Like Mandela. Like Mugabe. Lika Samora Machel. Like Augustinho Neto. A struggle for the full liberation of Africa.”

Cloaking your motives in a mantle of ancient grievance is an old trick in Africa. In my lifetime, at least a hundred dictators and Big Men have done it. Now comes Zuma with a similar lament, posing as a liberator bent on avenging the wounds of history, with stirring cant about “economic freedom” replacing the socialist slogans of yesteryear. Psychology tells us this line has deep appeal. History tells us what the outcome is likely to be - dumbfounding riches for the Big Man and his cronies, and misery for everyone else.

But history has yet to pronounce on us, South Africans, once regarded as Africa’s great hope, and blessed moreover with the tools of democracy and the wisdom of hindsight. Do we applaud Zuma’s speech or stand up and start screaming about, say, about the appalling stupidity of pulling a move that would inevitably slash the value of the rand even as we negotiate the purchase of millions of tons of dollar-denominated maize to feed our drought-striken poor?

Perhaps President Zuma truly believes that the law of supply and demand doesn’t apply to mealies. More likely, he is secretly counting on white men (or Chinese) to come to his rescue, as the United Nations stepped in to feed Zimbabwe after Robert Mugabe embarked on his variant of the quest for economic freedom. While the new finance minister squanders our money on locomotives that don’t fit our rails, nuclear power stations we can’t afford and fat commissions for the ravenous insiders clustered around the presidency. 

The big question is, do we call his bluff, or go like sheep into yet another cycle of history as farce, African style?

Rian Malan is a Fellow of the Institute of Race Relations.