Great opportunities, but also risks, for the official opposition
Opposition parties could scarcely have hoped for a better start to the campaign for the municipal elections on 3rd August than the African National Congress (ANC) has handed them with its refusal to endorse their proposed impeachment of President Jacob Zuma. The impeachment motion tabled in Parliament last week obviously had no chance of success.
But by forcing the ANC's parliamentary caucus to rally to the defence of its leader, the opposition made the ruling party complicit in his disdain for the Constitution. The number of ANC parliamentarians and other senior party members who squirm as they wonder whether it is worth continuing to support Mr Zuma at the cost of their own integrity can only grow.
Perhaps the most compromised figure of all is Cyril Ramaphosa, chairman of the constitutional assembly which drafted the Constitution. Back in December 2011, he wrote as follows: "This constitution is my Rock of Gibraltar. It is the rock of my constitutional soul." Nothing gave him more confidence, more hope, more security, and a sense of stability than that "precious document".
Evidently not precious enough to merit defending it against Mr Zuma. It is nevertheless significant that the ANC has not lashed out against the Constitutional Court for its findings against the president. Four years ago this party was planning to "review" all the court's judgements to assess their impact on "transformation".
Even though the plan was abandoned, judges on various courts who found against the government were branded as "counter-revolutionary", to use the term applied to them by Gwede Mantashe, secretary general of the ANC. Less than a year ago Mr Mantashe claimed there was a drive by certain judges to "create chaos for governance". There were warnings against "judicial overreach" , and against judges who were supposedly influenced by the media. And of course Mr Zuma has always said that the ANC is more important than the constitution.
The fact that the ANC has not now attacked the court suggests that even though it has defended Mr Zuma, it has finally recognised that his behaviour is indefensible. He has, after all, shown that he has no more respect for his party than he does for the Constitution. But the ANC's failure to attack the court also suggests awareness that doing so in defence of Mr Zuma may antagonise many of its own supporters.
These are issues that opposition parties can exploit in the forthcoming municipal elections. But the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), needs to be careful lest the ANC use race to deflect attention from the Zuma question and its numerous other failures and malfeasances.
Earlier this year the DA leader, Mmusi Maimane, made a speech at the Apartheid Museum in which he suggested that apartheid-style racism "continued to this day". He implied that high unemployment among black youth was somehow the result of apartheid, as were continuing "structural inequalities" in education and the high incidence of poverty.
Some of this is nonsense, some of it at best half-truth. Either way these racial red herrings are part of the ANC's propaganda campaign to deflect attention from its own failures, in particular sky-high unemployment and abysmally poor education. Unemployment is the result of the ANC's own policies. And 22 years in power is more than enough time to have made major improvements in education.
Yet the DA's inept handling of the Dianne Kohler-Barnard affair, and its participation in the frenzy whipped up against Penny Sparrow, show how easily it can be stampeded by the ANC's cynical but skilful playing of the race card. Sections of the media are also whipping up campaigns against the supposed prevalence of white racism, and the DA needs to be on guard against their agenda as well.
And its leader needs to avoid making speeches parts of which read as if they have been drafted in Luthuli House.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the South African Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.