Zimbabweans could learn a lesson from their neighbour

Charlene Smith 

It's raining in Johannesburg. In Africa, we believe rain is a blessing, that it cleanses, brings new life.
This week African National Congress delegates at Polokwane make the most important political decision the movement has taken since 1956 when it voted to allow white members, and pan-Africanists under Robert Sobukwe broke away.

In the same way that the Youth League of 1948 under Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and others shook up an organisation that had grown slothful and corrupt under founder Pixley ka Seme and his cohorts, those who at Sunday’s opening of the conference jeered ANC chairman Terror Lekota and President Thabo Mbeki are demanding an ANC that is once more accountable to the people.

You’d have to be the most cynical of observers not to see how hopeful those scenes were — not in the way Mbeki was humiliated, but in the way citizens of an African country, those who belong to the ruling party, essentially told a leader to go to hell because he had failed them. If you do not see that as the brightest star to shine above this continent for a long time, then little will persuade you. It shows democracy in action; this is the African renaissance.

Delegates essentially told an ANC leadership increasingly distant and contemptuous of its supporters that without economic freedom, there is no political freedom. A vote should be a ticket to a better future for all, not to Mercedes 4×4s for an elite.

It has set a precedent that every leader, in business and politics, should take careful note of — people are tired of waiting. They demand to be heard, to be respected.

Mbeki has the arrogance of one born into the ANC; he thinks he can direct it. Those who reject him are a new generation; they chose to join the ANC not because of what they hoped it could destroy (apartheid), but because of the promise of what it could build. These are the members not of struggle, but of democracy. They want what they were promised. And they want a say in decisions.

In every post-liberation African country, citizens have been cowed by the lies of revolutionary leaders. They have stayed silent as their countries have slid down the slope. In Polokwane on Sunday, people held up their hand against the slide.

A brave activist friend in Zimbabwe sent me these words by Alice Walker: It has become a common feeling, I believe, as we have watched our heroes falling over the years, that our own small stone of activism, which might not seem to measure up to the rugged boulders of heroism we have so admired, is a paltry offering toward the building of an edifice of hope. Many who believe this choose to withhold their offerings out of shame. This is the tragedy of the world. For we can do nothing substantial toward changing our course on the planet, a destructive one, without rousing ourselves, individual by individual, and bringing our small, imperfect stones to the pile.

If the citizens of Zimbabwe had stood up to Robert Mugabe the way South Africans did to Mbeki and the ANC leadership on Sunday, he would have been long gone. And no, our struggle is not over; it has just begun, but if Zimbabweans had done the same to Mugabe eight years into his reign, the destiny of that country would not be as bleak. On Sunday, a few South Africans showed they will not submit quietly and by doing that, they gave us back our future.

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian last week, his first in eight years, Mbeki said he had not realised the discontent of voters. Does he not read newspapers? If he did not realise the extent of discontent, why did he spend so much time attacking citizens, journalists, business people and others in his Friday letter? If, instead of walking shielded by bodyguards and speeding through communities with seven-car cavalcades, vehicles three abreast, if he’d stopped and walked among his people as Nelson Mandela did, then perhaps he may have known.

But in truth, Mbeki’s problem was that he believed he knew everything. It is better to have a president who knows what he doesn’t know and surrounds himself or herself with sound advisers than one who rejects counsel.

This week, the ANC’s pan-Africanist president will face the judgement of those he neglected, those against whom he orchestrated dirty tricks, those he insulted and those he wrongfully accused of plotting against him. He may still win, of course, but if he does it will be a bitter victory — for him and the nation.
Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale, forced out of the ANC presidential race by Mbeki before 1999 and who later claimed they had organised a conspiracy against him in 2000, are backing Zuma. Big businessman Patrice Motsepe has also turned his back on Mbeki.

In Latin America, it was said after repeated coups in the 1970s and 1980s that no coup could succeed without the backing of big business. Mbeki is likely to discover that his pro-business position was always tenuous because it lacked sufficient attention to the poor. The interests of the rich are always in danger, when too many of a populace go to bed hungry.

The poor do not threaten us; those who manipulate them do. High rates of crime here, as an example, are not a result of poverty, but of syndicates that have bribed the already privileged. It is the powerful who are corrupt that most endanger us. Beware, too, when you read this, of making easy judgements. The arms deal warns us again and again that there was a tapestry of top-level corruption, and less than a handful have faced charges. Are we rotten at the top? Even Mbeki and ANC secretary general Kgalema Motlanthe sketched a nation and an organisation riven with greed.

Which may be why principled business in the form of Ramaphosa and Sexwale are making a stand. Cyril Ramaphosa was the son of a policeman; in 1977 he was expelled from the same university where the ANC conference is being held for being part of black consciousness protests. Tokyo Sexwale came from a humble background; so did Motsepe — Mbeki, by contrast, didn’t. As Mark Gevisser described at the launch of his book A Dream Deferred, Mbeki came from a family that was an intellectual, political and financial elite. From the age of 19 he patrolled the cocktail circuits of Europe, returning home in his 50s to a people Gevisser reports that he said he felt a disconnect from.

Ramaphosa, Sexwale, Mac Maharaj, Jacob Zuma, Mathews Phosa — all those Mbeki humiliated understand the need to assuage the interests of the poor to grow the nation and to protect the fortunes they and the country have amassed. They will provide a strong counter to Cosatu’s desire to move the country left.
Mbeki, arguably the greatest political speech-writer in South Africa, failed on Sunday when he most needed to persuade. He strode to the podium in a brown golf shirt with pink and grey stripes, an ANC logo on his left breast; he never smiled, never made eye contact with the people with whom he should have sought to have some rapport. He spoke in the same way he ruled: aloof, dispassionate, disinterested in those before him.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation cameras never showed us the expressions of others on the podium. The SABC tried to control the situation with rigid camerawork, but ANC rank-and-file members are not under orders from Snuki Zikalala. There was occasional low-key heckling of Mbeki. Then, before the startled eyes of older cadres who had never yet been to a contested presidential election at an ANC conference, after Mbeki finished speaking chaos broke out with sustained pro-Zuma chants and singing. A beleaguered Terror Lekota, once one of the most popular people in the ANC until he began fervently backing Mbeki, failed to restore calm.

Earlier during his almost three-hour speech, Mbeki did something psychologically telling; when he began talking about confronting poverty and underdevelopment, he took out a white handkerchief and wiped his brow.

Mbeki should have inspired and yet he went through a dull litany of what his government had achieved and how it could have achieved more but for the corrupt. The point, however, is that it was he who had the power as president of the ANC and of the country to call opportunists and the corrupt to book, but in too many high-profile cases he either did nothing or prevented investigations.

The sacking of Vusi Pikoli, head of the National Prosecuting Authority and widely considered an honourable man, just before he was due to arrest police Commissioner Jackie Selebi is one point. Tony Yengeni’s brief sojourn in jail and the suspension of a police officer who claimed he was driving drunk is another.

Mbeki spoke of how public spending had increased by 9,4% in the past five years and that spending per person has grown twice as fast as the growth of the economy — but failed to note how much of the money allocated had not resulted in delivery. Take as an example the R5-billion allocated to education in the poverty-stricken Eastern Cape and not spent because of bureaucratic ineptitude.

Mbeki noted, too, that, the areas with the greatest number of violent crimes are poor and depressed economically. In those areas there are few recreational facilities, unemployment is high, there are many shebeens, there are dysfunctional families and the level of substance abuse is very high. But why, one wondered listening to him, have you done so little to remedy this? Where is the building of parks or youth centres or intense programmes to stop drug or alcohol abuse and help those addicted?

He was booed when he denied that under him there had been a centralisation of government power in president or an abuse of state power. He responded: It is easy for members to be misled. And here he made the most serious mistake any political leader can make — speaking to his constituency as though they are children and lack the wisdom to make their own decisions.

If people walked in clean, safe streets, believed they had work opportunities, if clean water flowed from taps and children had good education and effective medical care, then no trouble maker could succeed.

It will be remarkable if Mbeki wins at the polls. If he does, I do not want to be in Polokwane, because it is a decision that will not be believed either there or in other parts of the country. If he loses, history will commend him if he calls an early national election and goes with dignity. He has made so many enemies that it is hard to see what post he could assume here or internationally. A United Nations post seemed obvious, but South Africa’s record at the Security Council has been so contentious that it is now probably out of the question. His position at Portugal recently in defence of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe alienated many Europeans.

By contrast, Zuma will be elected knowing that many mistrust him. He is starting off a low base, but has the backing of some remarkable people. Much has already happened in Polokwane to give cause for hope. Perhaps the rain is a messenger. – Copyright: Charlene Smith

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