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Analysis of the South African Political Situation

January 18, 2008


Hedging About
by Bernard Spong
former staff of South Africa Council of Churches

Many people have asked for my comments on the recent feud, acrimony and resultant changes in leadership in the African National Congress earlier this month. I spent a lot of time searching for some way to explain the basic reason for the demand for change in the ruling party. On Friday it literally stared me in the face.

Friday saw the results of the matriculation examinations come out.

The thousands upon thousands of young people who took that end of schooling examination in the various subjects of their choice would know whether they had passed, what grades and, therefore, what chance to enter a University. The local newspaper, The Star, had two or three pages of photographs of the top achievers. There were one hundred and two smiling faces - five of them were black African! The vast majority were white with a minor smattering of Indian and Coloured. That said it all.

We have changed everything to keep things the same. We have a new democracy and a superb constitution. We have a democratically elected government where the vast majority of faces are black with one of the best proportion of women members in the world. We no longer have separated education departments based on race. Hospitals do not bar you because of your colour. Every opportunity is open to everyone.

There are even Black Empowerment regulations that should make it easier for black people to advance and secure skills and positions.

The finance markets do well and figures about growth and productivity, profits and expansions are given every day on the news.

BUT for the majority of people life is just like it was in the old days of colonialism and apartheid. The schools in the townships remain under staffed with a lack of facilities while suburban and, more especially, private schools offer everything necessary in the way of education. Private hospitals offer top world class medical services but public hospitals groan under the weight of the demands and the lack of resources to meet them.

The colonial masters have changed. The Dutch came first to build the original symbol of separation - that hedge in the Cape to keep the settlers separate and safe from the indigenous; we had the British to claim the riches beneath our soil for Queen and country and proclaim a land act that gave the majority of the people the right to own - in their own country, mind you - the minority of the land; we had the rulers of apartheid to cement discrimination even further. We now have the colonialism of globalisation that talks of free trade and, at the same time, creates its hedges of privilege in trading practices.

To be sure, in South Africa today there are more people of substance than before and many black people, especially in the cities, are able to seize the opportunities of skill learning and decent employment.

Every day I see signs of new possibilities for people. I rejoice in living with neighbours of different races. I am proudly South African and have lived to see so many changes in structure and systems of government that give the possibility of equality.

BUT - there it goes again, but - I see remaining poverty; I see people whose opportunity of seizing those possibilities is nil; I see poor service delivery for the people who need it most; I see that assisting more black people to live on the "right" side of the hedge does not remove the hedge itself.

And now I see - the ANC Conference is a for instance - a movement of people saying - as we did in the final days of apartheid - "Enough is enough!"

The Conference

Many of us have talked about the requirement of a second revolution to follow the toppling of apartheid. The huge change that swept through the leadership of the ANC is not that revolution but it is a symbol of the need. That revolution may never happen. I am enough of a realist to realise that - the hedges of the powerful are very thick and very strong - but the ANC party elections were an indication of a bitter frustration of many of its members with the status quo of present day South African political life and leadership.

Worthy of celebration is the fact that it could happen. The changes were made by the members of the Conference through an open-for-all-to-see voting system. There were all the influences of electioneering and peer pressure but no vote rigging. There was a lot of speculation and talk about payments and promises for votes but in the end the numbers said it all, it was time for change.

The dynamics were many and I am not privy to the inner workings of the party or politics in general to recognise them all. Some, however, were obvious.

There was the dynamic of the two major personalities: Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. Thabo Mbeki does not believe, as he has since said, that he is "aloof." A lot of people perceive this to be so, however, and many see his presidency as losing contact with the masses. Those who are part of that presidency are tarred with that same brush. They are seen to have become a group of wealthy elitists who say what is good for everyone and make sure that first and foremost it is good for them. I have heard from more than one person since the dramatic vote that they are amazed that the `Mbeki camp´ could not see what was happening long before that vote actually took place and that this lack of foresight is a symbol of the huge gap between them and the vast majority of the people.

Jacob Zuma, on the other hand is recognised by many - those who are against him becoming President as well as his supporters - as a charismatic personality who knows how to please the crowd, whichever crowd he is with at the time. That seems to be his strength and, when you go deeper into it, his obvious weakness.

His supporters shrug off the charges of corruption against him and the manner of his dealing with the rape charge he faced some time ago. There seems to be an air of so what if he did take money from those who have it and were ready to give it to him? Don´t say that it doesn´t happen in politics the world over and, anyway, the charges are just a political plot by the Mbeki camp to try and get rid of him. A business friend of mine said his major crime was to be found out! And, no matter what stupid things he said in his defence, he was acquitted on the charge of rape.

There were some signs of the dynamics of tribalism. Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela before him come for the Xhosa Eastern Cape. A majority of ANC leaders have come from that area. Even if there are significant numbers of people in the cabinet and leading positions who actually come from other groupings the perception is that there is favouritism and patronage. Isn´t politics about perceptions?

The major dynamic remains that a huge mass of people believe they have not had a fair deal from the present leadership. The gap between the rich and poor gets bigger, the number of unemployed remains astronomically high and the talk of equality and a better life for all people remains a myth.

For me the most symbolic vote of all at that Conference was the vote for Winnie Madikizela Mandela as number one to head the list of the eighty six member strong ANC National Executive (NEC). She was placed right there at the top of the list. She collected more votes in that Conference than anybody else, including Jacob Zuma. This is a strong sign of the ordinary grass roots members choosing people whom they feel remain close to them and understand the needs of the ordinary working/unemployed masses. She may have been out of the leadership list of the ANC elite, but she was never out of the minds of the people. She kept her contacts and her interests at grass roots level.

My own position

I do not see this vote and what it portrays as an idealistic event. I have enough scepticism in me to expect that most people voted for change so that they could be better off - get to the other side of the hedge as it were. That is how people vote in democracies. I was at a talk given by a well known struggle (against apartheid) participant recently where he said that once upon a time you joined the ANC knowing that it could lead to detention and torture and that nowadays you joined the ANC knowing that it could lead to wealth and position. Ah well, it happens.

The idea of Jacob Zuma as President of the nation does not thrill me at all. I have to confess, however, that I am glad I did not have to make a cross on a ballot paper at that Conference. I want change but I do not want Zuma change! If I was there I suspect there would have been one more spoilt paper. This is the trouble with democracy! It presents us with either-or when we want something quite different.

The next weeks and months will be very interesting. Mbeki remains President of the nation but Zuma is leader of the official ruling party. What changes will this bring to the cabinet and government policies? Some of the present cabinet are not on the NEC of the ANC any longer. They will surely be axed? I look with great interest to see if the Minister of Health keeps her post. I am one of those amazed - and if it was not so tragic, amused - by her actions or lack thereof on the Aids pandemic. If she is axed, whoever can claim credit for that will gain support from many ... but, on the other hand, she is one cabinet member who was voted on to the NEC and maybe that indicates that she is not as much out of step with the masses as our newspaper media would have us believe. That for me is going to be a symbol equal to the vote on Winnie. It will be a helpful indicator of where the power lies and what priorities are to be chosen in the coming months.

What do I want? I want to see a government that puts more energy into rooting out the hedges that separate us one from another in this nation. Rooting them out, not trimming them down a bit here and there. And I want a church or collective religious leadership that participates more rigorously in speaking to issues and presenting and, more importantly, illustrating alternates to the present priorities of society. Now those are idealistic!

But then, that is who I am and I have lived long enough in South Africa to have had my ideals watered and fed sufficient to keep them alive. I remain a prisoner of hope.

Bernard Spong
December 30th 2007

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