Our feckless President

John Kane-Berman says Jacob Zuma is out of his depth when it comes to trying to curb violence

Feckless Zuma out of his depth on curbing violence

The recent mayhem in Pretoria and most of its far-flung surrounding townships in the Tshwane metropolitan area demonstrates nothing so much as the fecklessness of President Jacob Zuma's government. The violence erupted less than a week after Mr Zuma had appealed for an end to the "violent community protests" that were "destroying the social fabric of our society".

Speaking in the Orlando Stadium in Soweto on the 40th anniversary of the upheavals in Soweto in June 1976, he also deplored the burning of trains when they arrived late and the burning of factories to demonstrate unhappiness with local councillors. In May he used his speech at the centenary celebrations of the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape to warn that "history would judge those who burn university buildings and schools very harshly". Two weeks before that he said the country should be alarmed at the burning of schools in the Vuvani district of  Limpopo province.

And so it goes. Mr Zuma can talk about the "suspicious" nature of violent protests, his colleagues can blame them on attempts to make Tshwane "ungovernable", or on "hooliganism", or on foreigners seeking "regime change" in South Africa, but it cannot stop them. People set fire to buildings and buses and police cars, trash the streets, barricade roads, close down hospitals, or murder foreign traders and workers who fail to support strikes for a very simple reason: they know that they can usually get away with it. The ANC's writ does not run.  

They have known this for a long time, for Mr Zuma has been warning against violence and promising to enforce the law for years. As one of his ministers put it two years ago, "The president and various ministers have on numerous occasions called for restraint" and they will not "tolerate the destruction of property and the violent nature of protests".

What newspaper headlines now routinely describe as "anarchy" or "chaos" predates Mr Zuma's assumption of power. In 2006 President Thabo Mbeki condemned those who threw people off trains or murdered local councillors or used violence in strikes or against provincial boundary changes. Ten years before that he issued a statement on behalf of President Nelson Mandela condemning acts or threats of violence and the blocking of highways and traffic routes. All of this would be dealt with "firmly and unequivocally".

Water off a duck's back then. Water off a duck's back now. Part of the problem is that the African National Congress (ANC) itself is equivocal: it has never finally renounced the use of violence for political purposes, even though it is now in power. Nor have its communist and union allies.

In April this year the minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande, proclaimed himself "astounded" by damage to university property in student violence, but in 2008 he was himself threatening to make Pietermaritzburg ungovernable if Mr Zuma appeared in court on charges of fraud and corruption. The following year he threatened "war" against those opposing national health insurance. And only last year the ANC Youth League threatened to make the University of Stellenbosch "ungovernable". 

When the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) threatened "extreme violence" against schoolchildren in 2008, its secretary general, Thulas Nxesi, dismissed this as "political rhetoric". Mr Mxesi now sits in the Cabinet as minister of public works.   

In his Soweto speech Mr Zuma called on society to come up with solutions to the "rising culture of violence". Some of these are obvious, such as introducing professionalism throughout the police, prosecution, and intelligence services. But there is something pathetic about a president having to make such an appeal instead of just doing the job.

It is an admission that his, and his party's, effectiveness in power is eroding as fast as their legitimacy and presumed moral standing. The man and his government are simply out of their depth. 

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the South African Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.