As if the electorate could be any more bewildered by current South African politics, the decision to drop all corruption charges against Jacob Zuma has turned ordinary South Africans into believers, converted sceptics into philosophers and motored immigration turnstiles into action.
Just a week before the “most important election” and the electorate couldn’t be more divided.
On the one hand you have Zuma, his team of loyal supporters riding high from the decision by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to drop all charges. After years of screaming from the lungs, shooting from the hip and camping outside courtrooms, the decision is a vindication like no other. This is the Messiah; they are the Zumamaniacs.
On the other side, brimming with inconsolable rage and frustration marked by flared nostrils, are those who are maddened that secret tapes, legal technicalities and incompetent NPA administration has botched the most important case in South African history. Zuma was not found not guilty; his case was thrown out because political interference in this case was reasonably proven, making the case against him inadmissible. To this lot, the countless counts of corruption haven’t just disappeared and until Zuma is tried in a court of law, their scepticism makes him an inevitable disaster. This man represents Mugabe, Amin, every single post-colonial African leader who went wrong; they are the Zumaphobes.
South Africa’s fourth election since Nelson Mandela’s release from prison might be vaunted as the electorate’s opportunity to root out corruption, declare war on crime and deliver essential services to the economically disenfranchised. In reality though, how South Africans will decide to vote will be determined by where they stand in relation to Zuma.
The real fight is not between the parties; the real heavyweight in this election is the battle of the personalities; even if it is simply just one person with multiple personas.
Jacob — “the black Jesus”, “husband of some”, “working-class hero”, “chief borrower of taxpayers’ money”, “father of many and the nation” — Zuma.
Forget about the epic struggle between conservative Republican and the slightly less conservative Democrats; the so-called secular Indian Congress versus the visibly right-wing BJP battle for dominance; this is a battle between simply those for and against Zuma.
This is the classic Zuma supporter, powered by an ideologue and motored by Julius Malema, the ANC Youth League leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, general-secretary of Cosatu and Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the SA Communist Party, who argue that the work-in-progress-revolution, led by the ANC, has finally reached working-class control.
So if the ANC has not delivered to the masses over the past fifteen years, it was because the revolution was side-tracked, hijacked by counter-revolutionaries aka the Mbeki era of shiny suits and foreign education. Now, with the conclusion of the ANC conference in Polokwane in late 2007 — which saw the ANC vote in Zuma as their new president — the ANC is finally the organ of the working class. Hence the leading positions of Vavi and Nzimande in Zuma’s election campaign.
After shots of jaundiced rhetoric, sit down with a trade unionist-card-carrying-ANC member and ask him (yes, most are males) what drives him to support Zuma in this election considering how the ANC has let the larger union movement down in so many respects.
“The ANC resolutions of Polokwane” will be the retort.
Yes the ANC might be suffering internal ruptures; leading figures of the movement have criticised the manner and methods in which the party is being run, questions have been raised on the volatility and delinquency of youth structures, and the language of populism, which is substantially combative and disturbingly provocative, have been widely condemned.
But ANC resolutions have changed; its resolutions have shifted to a more working-class agenda, and all the concerns of the Zumaphobe are meaningless, simply because these concerns read as a direct attempt to undermine the working-class cause.
Their leader might have and might still be under a cloud of corruption charges and he might be even guilty, but they believe that he finds himself in this position only because of counter-revolutionaries who are probably guilty themselves of some wrong-doing. Most importantly, he is the man they have been waiting (hence the black Jesus) to lead them out of bondage.
But Zumamaniacs aren’t only working-class heroes hoping for a brighter future.
Zuma is supported by a large band of champagne-toting elites, armed with the vision of a Zuma-led South Africa where government tenders and black economic empowerment deals would be plentiful. Theirs is an economic opening laced by greed, opportunism and returning favour.
They know economic policy will not shift or change, and if it does, they’ll win the tender to make it happen.
The middle-class liberal South African is on the other hand, the classic Zumaphobe. This character is totally flabbergasted by the violence stirring semantics of the ANCYL; the explicit and unashamed tolerance for corruption (ie Neihaus, Sheik, Zuma’s hundreds of counts of corruption charges); the end of proven crime-fighting apparatus (the Scorpions) and the seemingly endless pit of poor governance illustrated by the running administration (failures of parastatals South African Airways and Eskom, farcical street name changes, severe failures in health and education, political appeasement with Zimbabwe).
For the Zumaphobe, the Polokwane process represents the absolute opposite of what the Zumamaniacs perceive it to have been; an event hijacked by the histrionics of the Zumamaniacs. Whilst not a fan of former president Mbeki, “an authoritarian and power-hungry toss”, Zuma’s populism and his mass of blind followers are seen by Zumaphobes as an ever bigger threat to South Africa’s democracy, a threat to the freedom of association, a threat to the liberties fought so hard for in the liberation struggle.
Zuma’s supporters have openly called for his corruption charges to be dropped, have openly maligned the Human Rights Commission, have staged disruptive protests outside courts, often intimidating digressers. Moreover, the rape trial and shower episode of 2007 has left an inimitable bitter taste; an unambiguous loss of respect for Zuma the man.
If anything, Zuma’s supporters appear ungovernable; their approach wild, brash and dangerous.
In all probability, the charges that were once set against Zuma and the willingness of his supporters to ignore and pledge unwavering support despite these charges sounds off all the alarm bells of a pending African banana republic in the making.
To this schmaltzy cappuccino reader of History 101, this is enough evidence to suggest that the ANC has long lost the values developed by OR Tambo, Nelson Mandela and the elder Mbeki. The ANC is drunk on power; they must be prevented from gaining any more power and therefore, an alternative must be sought.
But many Zumaphobes, as decisive as they might be about avoiding Zuma, they aren’t particularly sure of whom to mark that X on the ballot sheet come April 22nd.
Somewhere in the midst of it all, Zuma became the working-class hero in a suited-up cabinet; he was identified as the humble bloke of a humble abode with an even more humble habitus; the irrevocable underdog whom humble folk with two goats, five roosters and a leaking roof can still call son.
While the middle-class liberal might think their insistence on a trial for Zuma is a democratic necessity, Zuma’s baseline supporters see these so-called democratic obligations as merely vehicles to suppress their leader unfairly, unjustly and therefore, stifle the working-class cause.
Do you point out that rooting out corruption is more important than the setting the working-class agenda?
Do you point out that dismissive, violent language has no place in a democratic state?
Where will the image of Zuma and all he represents fit in then?
Zuma has not been voted in yet, so the verdict is still out on whether his non-active tenure as deputy president was per Mbeki’s design, and therefore as the new president he’d theoretically have all the freedom to advance the economic changes forwarded by the working class.
And so if he really does turn into Fidel, Chavez or Maradona and delivers the revolution by nationalising everything from diamonds to gold to ostrich soup, and offers genuinely brilliant and free health care, education (meaning Zimbabweans would even use it), exports biltong-flavoured cigars to Sweden and knights Zapiro, would he then have succeeded?
The liberals know that these pro-ANC resolutions are hardly bound to materialise; he is bound to fail.
And so if he really does turn into Fidel, Chavez and Maradona and delivers that animal farm allegory of rampant despotism, neglect and absolute disregard of human rights, renounces freedom of association, hangs Zapiro all the while sipping mojitos, munching biltong and watching South Africa slip into Zimbabwean-like oblivion (meaning Zimbabweans would even leave); would he have then failed?
Simply put, how will we measure the Zuma presidency?
For now, there is no immediate resolution between the heavyweights; for both sides speaks different languages; both sides believe in a different victory; both sides want their way at all costs.
In the struggle between the Zumaphobes and Zumamaniacs, there is no winner.
Now it’s the vote; then the wait and see game begins.