"How did we get to this point?"

Douglas Gibson says President Zuma is trying to exacerbate racial tensions to shore up his power

South Africa is strong enough to survive this president

Tony Leon said some years ago that our constitutional democracy was so strong that South Africa could survive a term or two with a weak president.  I agreed with him, but I must confess that I had no idea quite how bad this president would be or how trying his presidency would be for the country and what damage it would cause.

 “How did we get to this point?” This is a question that good South Africans ask themselves with a rueful shake of the head.  In 1994, things looked so hopeful, so promising.  It didn’t matter whether one had voted ANC, NNP or DP; most of us were filled with optimism about the future, glad to be rid of the shackles of Apartheid and tired of being the polecat of the world.  We knew that there was a long road ahead and that there had to be redress – the past could not simply be forgotten – but we yearned to create a better future for all of us, together, as free and equal citizens of a new South Africa.

Twenty-three years later we have on president who starts his Freedom Day speech to the nation, not trying to unify his people, but lovingly polishing his and the country’s anti-Apartheid credentials.

 I once accused disgraced former political prisoner, MP and ambassador, Carl Niehaus, on television, of using Apartheid as the gift that keeps on giving because he wanted to keep on dining out on it forever.  It seems that President Zuma suffers from the same sickness.

On Freedom Day, when South Africans are meant to come together to celebrate, the president said, “It has been a long road since that watershed general election that marked the collapse of racist white rule.  The defeat of apartheid colonialism by the South African people was one of the great achievements of humankind… One of the best descriptions of life under racist minority rule….’In those days the black man was treated as a beast of burden. He was knocked and kicked about with impunity.’”   And so on.  And on. Nothing he said was untrue. But he failed to mention that it was our compatriots together who ended the old system and took hands in creating the new.

The MK and ANC did not bring about the transition; the Nationalist government could have held out for years and led us into civil war and bloodshed.  Instead, people of vision and goodwill like Mandela and de Klerk and the representatives of all the political parties in South Africa negotiated a new future – first the unbannings, then the peace talks, then through Codessa.   Has Mr Zuma forgotten that?

His mission is not to unite us: it is divide us. The purpose is clear: the ANC is failing as a governing party and faces the prospect of defeat in the 2019 general election.  This being so, this shrewd old man reckons the best way of shoring up his support is to exacerbate racial feelings and make the majority of black South Africans blame white South Africans for everything that is wrong in our country.  It is a handy fact that whites now number only around 8% of the electorate.  Few support the ANC, so he risks losing minimal support from whites.  What he stands to gain is the resentment vote of black people he has fired up to hate whites.  He hopes in this way to stop the slide in support for his party.

When Mr Zuma talks about racism, as he does at every opportunity, it is always about white perpetrators and black victims.  It is never the other way around.  In the midst of all his other troubles, the president ought really to look in the mirror if he wants to identify someone who goes out of his way to incite racial animosity. If the laws against racism eventually pass through parliament, he will have to be careful and modify his utterances, otherwise he might find himself in court, not only facing 783 corruption charges, but also a charge or two of racism.

What a tragedy it is that Jacob Zuma has turned out to be such a disappointment.  Despite his questionable ethics, when he succeeded the excellent President Motlanthe, he had a reputation for being a friendly, approachable person, different from the rather austere intellectual, Thabo Mbeki.  Many of us hoped that his would be a relaxed and quite jolly presidency, able to relieve the somewhat depressing realities of unemployment, deaths from Aids, inequality between the races and all the other negative factors ailing our country.

Instead, we still have the laughing president whose “heh-heh-heh” has become so well -known, cloaking a shrewd and calculating man, not to be underestimated in his determination to cling to power.  His brilliant record as a political prisoner and as a fighter for freedom has been totally obscured by his greed that enabled his capture, firstly by Shabir Shaik and then far more destructively for the country, by the Gupta family and, it is strongly rumoured, the Russians.

Because the president has made sure that his acolytes and supporters eat at the trough, the chances of the Parliamentary No-Confidence motion succeeding are slim. For the same reason, the ANC as a party is highly unlikely to “recall” him, using their rather polite word for “fire.”  He is likely to continue in office until 2019.

That continuance spells disaster for the chances of the ANC of retaining power but for the political health of South Africa, it is just the impetus the country needs to move to the next stage of democracy: a transfer of power to a new government via the ballot box.  I think Tony Leon is correct; South Africa is strong enough to survive even this presidency. That is something to celebrate.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand. His website is douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com

This article first appeared in The Star.