William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Zuma’s protectors at one another’s throats

Donning a jaunty Ché beret doth not a soldier make, as the wannabe revolutionaries of the African National Congress Youth League recently discovered, when the real fighters highlighted the difference.

The uMkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) in KwaZulu-Natal lashed the ANCYL’s embattled leader, saying “If it was still the struggle era, Julius Malema would have been killed by firing squad for the way in which he was rude to the ANC leadership.”

This sent the young cubs squealing to the parent organisation, demanding “immediate action” against this “incitement of violence”. It is, of course, a breathtakingly hypocritical response given the league’s own bloodcurdling threats to opponents, until recently benignly tolerated by party elders. The league also wanted a retraction and apology, failing which it would head for the Equality Court and the Human Rights Commission.

The incident reflects a growing antagonism between the two organisations. The KZN MKMVA also had a go at Malema in December, warning that as former soldiers they would not sit back and allow attacks on Zuma.

“Malema must know that this is an exceptional province with an incomparable (sic) violent political history. He should be careful when dealing with it,” the MKMVA said.

The most recent snarling has significance beyond the inadvertent admission of rough justice meted out to cadres during the liberation struggle. (Despite being chillingly documented, most memorably by former ANC activist Paul Trewhela in his book Inside Quatro, this is an ugly bit of party history that the organisation has managed to gloss over remarkably successfully.)

To date, the ANC leadership has failed to rebuke the veterans and there has been no retraction, never mind apology. One might conclude then that there is tacit approval.

Though MKVA are not — quite yet — the kingmakers that the Zimbabwean veterans have been next door, this is a warning shot to the ANCYL. The message is that the journey to Mangaung could be a rough one, depending how they behave towards Zuma.

Zuma has in MKMVA cultivated a potentially powerful Praetorian guard. For starters, Zuma instinctively commands their loyalty for historical reasons, because of the leadership role he played in the armed struggle, exposing himself to personal danger.

Then, since becoming president, Zuma has assiduously elevated the importance of MKMVA within the structures of the party, paying court to an organisation that previously met only a cold shoulder from former president Thabo Mbeki. The defence ministry has added the tag Military Veterans to its name, and placatory lashings of largesse — at least R20bn over five years — have been promised to the veterans.

Aside from the fact that R20bn buys a lot of fealty, much of the attention given the veterans makes good sense. In a society burdened with a large contingent of demobilised soldiers with little hope of civilian employment, it is better to provide adequate pensions and benefits, than leave them to make their own arrangements.

Increasingly, however, MKMVA has been playing a more militant watchdog role within the ANC — in which structures it has no formal standing — supposedly to protect “struggle” values but in reality watching Zuma’s back. Among those whom they have targeted is National Planning minister Trevor Manuel whose “hell-bent efforts to undermine … MK” would “not be tolerated” and the now late former education minister Kader Asmal, whom they advised to “go to a cemetery and die”.

Malema’s ANCYL, boasting that it would “kill for Zuma”, once stood alongside MKVA as Zuma’s defenders. Now they are at one another’s throats. While it has all been bluster so far, violent talk has a scary propensity to become violent action. If that happens it is unlikely, also, to remain confined to internal ANC score settling.

Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile Histories of the ANC and Swapo, by Paul Trewhela, published by Jacana Media in 2010.

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