Jacob Zuma and the anti-Zille frenzy

Four important lessons from the Mbeki-era applicable to South Africa today

There is something in the toxic moral atmosphere that has rolled over South Africa in the past few weeks that is reminiscent of that which prevailed after Thabo Mbeki's ascent to the state presidency in 1999. Even though he was taking over from a living icon, Mbeki was nonetheless seen to embody the promise of a new dawn. His government would be decisive, less tolerant of incompetence than Mandela had been, and finally set about delivering. Political writers and commentators fell over themselves praising Mbeki's brilliance and his statesmanlike demeanour and approach. The columnist Xolela Mangcu wrote that, despite its pedestrian delivery, the serious content of Mbeki's inauguration speech made "tears well up" in his eyes.

Though many chose not to notice it the hostility to dissent which would come to characterise the Mbeki-era was already on very public display. The immediate target of the presidency's wrath was the Democratic Party of Tony Leon (the organisation for which I then worked as a parliamentary researcher.) Leon had been critical - or ultra-critical as legend would have it - of the emerging Mbeki-ite agenda of racialism and centralisation. And once the election was over the ANC unleashed its attack dogs on him.

Despite now being the largest opposition party in parliament the DP was stripped of its place on the Judicial Services Commission and the chairmanship of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts. It was also subjected to a campaign of demonisation which culminated in the labelling, in parliament, of the DP as the political home of "neo-Nazism" and "white fascism." The message was delivered by a former DP MP who had defected to the ANC a short while before (and who was subsequently rewarded with an ambassadorship). I remember thinking then that a ruling clique which thought it could use debased propaganda of that kind against a Jewish South African was really capable of anything.

There are certain obvious parallels between then and now. Once again the media has been overcome by a strange and unnatural sense of optimism - triggered perhaps by Zuma's failure to immediately realise any of their deepest and most inchoate fears.

Once again the columnist Xolela Mangcu was choked by emotion at the inauguration of the new president. In his Weekender column he noted how "A tear came to my eye when Zuma was sworn in." Once again the DA has been excluded from the chairmanship of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts as punishment for its ‘hostile' approach. And once again the ANC's attack dogs have been unleashed on the leader of that party.

There are a number of lessons from that 1999 period, which are applicable to the current situation. The first is that the past conduct of politicians remains relevant to assessing their behaviour, even after they are elected to the highest office in the land. There was nothing in the worst of Mbeki's conduct post 1999 that had not actually been presaged by his actions before then.

The prevailing sentiment in the media appears to be that the accession to power in some way washes away a politician's past wrongdoings and misdemeanours. The truth is: the opposite is generally the case. Rather than moderating them, power is far more likely to turn a politician's flaws into pathologies. This is especially the case if the media abrogate their duty of watchfulness (as they largely did in 1999).

The second is that attack dogs can only operate with the connivance of their political masters. In 1999 Mbeki's hidden hand was rarely seen behind the attacks upon, and subsequent misfortunes, of his opponents. Now it is generally accepted, not least by Zuma supporters, that it was there all along.

The MKMVA and ANCYL are both constitutional structures of the ANC, headquartered in Luthuli House. Julius Malema may have a rush of blood to the head and label Zille a "racist little girl" once out of his own volition. But if the Youth League use that language a second, and then third time, it is very unlikely that they are acting without the tacit approval of Jacob Zuma (the ANC's formal distancing notwithstanding).

The third is that it is necessary to distinguish between the surface complaint and the underlying principle at stake. In 1999 what was at issue was not actually whether the DP was ‘neo-Nazi' but whether it (and anyone else) had the right to criticise and oppose the ANC of Mbeki.

Now, Zille's critics can hardly argue with the factual basis of her statement that Zuma had had put the lives of his wives at risk when he had unprotected sex with an HIV positive woman. In his judgment in the rape case Justice van der Merwe noted: "The accused was criticised for the fact that he in his responsible position in government took the chance of being infected with HIV. He was also criticised for running the risk of infecting his wives. The accused conceded all that."

Whether raising this incident was, however, the best way of responding to some hypocritical criticism of her cabinet choices is another matter. As Tony Leon noted, "Zille's reference to Zuma's personal history was factually correct but tactically questionable." However, political actors will often reveal their true nature if they believe - as in this case - they have a little bit of right on their side. The vicious abuse that Helen Zille has consequently been subjected to is considerably worse than anything I remember from the famously intolerant Mbeki-era.

There is an underlying theme in much of the anti-Zille rhetoric - dripping as it is in gross misogyny and racialism. This is that no-one, especially no woman, and more especially no white woman, should think themselves entitled to criticise the president's personal conduct. The ANC alliance appears to be trying to dish out a lesson to her, and South Africa more generally. This is that from now on everyone should grovel before the feet of the new big man. As MKMVA put it, in a statement, they were going to the Western Cape to "apply the necessary pressure to the little premier who is too big for her boots."

The fourth lesson from the early Mbeki-era is how important it is to prevent those in power from abrogating to themselves the right to set boundaries on political debate, and in particular, from placing the president (and his dignity) above any kind of criticism or reproach.

In 1999 the mainstream English language press, the SACP and COSATU were completely at one with Mbeki's policies of centralisation and demographic representivity (the issues on which the DP was then dissenting.) But the DP's defence of its right to criticise and oppose Mbeki on these issues kept space open - which was subsequently exploited by others to challenge him on matters such as his AIDS policy and the abuse of state power.

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