ABZ is not the way


SA must tread softly to avoid repeating the mistakes of the Mbeki/Zuma presidential succession. 

The biggest mistake South Africa can make now is to adopt an ABZ – “Anyone But Z uma” – attitude to the ANC succession debate. If we do that, we will make the same mistake the ANC made when they got rid of former president Thabo Mbeki, says Ralph Mathekga, political analyst and author of the recently published book When Zuma Goes.

“With Mbeki, there was the feeling we should have ABM – “Anything But Mbeki”. But that kind of thinking does not provide the opportunity to actually evaluate the next leader,” Mathekga said in an interview with Noseweek.

Ralph Mathekga

“We can’t just focus on getting out of the crisis of the current leader, without asking searching questions about the next one.

“Look at how Cosatu and the SACP are supporting Cyril Ramaphosa as the next leader… when I ask them to elaborate on why, it is more like they just want somebody who is not prone to scandals,” said Mathekga.

“We should not just get a leader because he or she is not scandalous, just because he is not Zuma. The bar is set so low that if we go with ABZ, we’ll not be pulled out of our socio-economic crisis.

“Today, more than ever, we need someone creative, someone who will focus on getting rid of the 30% unemployment, who will make decisions with passion and who will plead for support of those decisions in the public domain.”

Mathekga, who is the head of Political Economy for the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, has become a familiar voice as an analyst – particularly in the broadcast media. The institute prides itself on taking a “long-term view on the strategic challenges facing South Africa”.

Mathekga, says fellow commentator Justice Malala, is fast becoming one of South Africa’s most respected political analysts, “because, he is obsessed with the future”.

Previously a policy researcher for thenow-defunct Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) and a senior policy analyst for the Treasury, Mathekga brings a compelling perspective, sometimes tinged with a gentle humour, on South African politics.

The title of the book, When Zuma Goes, prompted News24 editor and author of Zuma Exposed, Adriaan Basson, to cut right to the chase at a recent launch of the book in Cape Town.

“So, can you give us the date, time and Zuma’s successor’s name,” asked Basson. To which Mathekga replied: “I am sorry… I actually overheard someone close to Thabo Mbeki say he fears JZ might seek a third term in the ANC and can actually win it...”

Mathekga, a man who “loves a crisis”, believes it is only then that real opportunities for realignment can come about.

“The ANC is, as we all know, in crisis… and this is the first time I have seen the organisation so democratic. We have never seen them so open to ideas. I have never seen such a level of tolerance among members of the party which has 60% of the vote. Compare this with a few years ago when it was a really arrogant party…. which would not tolerate dissent, which labelled people.

“Now that this thing is collapsing on them, they are actually tapping outside the ANC. Could you ever have imagined this party actually using the phrase ‘motion of no confidence’ internally? There is a real shift towards compromise… they are trying to bring in a conversation at a higher level and that is so good for the country.

“What we are seeing is a real opening up of the space, an acknowledgement that knowledge does not only reside in the ANC,” said Mathekga.

“My fear is that, if the ANC coheres now, the first thing they might want to do is close up this space. They are not used to accepting criticism, so if they cohere, they might want to close that space.

“South Africans must ensure this debate is controlled not by the ANC but by civil society and critical thinkers.”

In fact, says Mathekga, his fear is that the country’s quest for stability might end up with the hasty installation of a benign dictator – “someone who is less corrupt than the current president but doesn’t provide that open space.

“When Julius Malema becomes the moral basis of leadership in society … then I am worried about how people reflect on this crisis. Dictatorship emerges after a socio-economic crisis in society where people find themselves displaced. Benign dictators like (Rwandan leader) Paul Kagame are what I fear most. They are intolerant, they want to control the public narrative and, in essence they don’t ensure the survival of democracy. But the democratic commitment is of as much value as delivery of services.

“Our nation should not tolerate any kind of benign dictator.”

Mathekga has, in recent times, said South Africa can in fact say a big thank you to Zuma, for “getting us to this crisis earlier than many other African countries did.

“It usually takes about 30 years for a founding party or liberation movement to start falling out. In Kenya, it took about 50 years. By the time the ruling party lost power in 2012, they had forgotten that government offices are not party offices. In South Africa we have got there quickly. We have already reached a healthy sense of doubt about the intentions of leadership. We have an interesting precedent around the powers of the Public Protector. We have achieved so much in a short space of time – and these developments have come about through conflict, much of which was orchestrated by Jacob Zuma.”

In the book, Mathekga aims to avoid simplifying Jacob Zuma. “I want to understand the logic of his methods and how that logic is reflected in the ANC and in society. There’s a sense that the ANC would prefer to move away from the Zuma years, to write off its losses and completely extricate itself from the man. But this will not explain how the party produced Zuma and what his impact has been on the party.”

Mathekga also takes pains to stress that if Zuma did not exist, the populace would have invented him. “The fact that he took the space doesn’t mean he invented it. He is the one who saw the space and took it. People saw Mbeki as inaccessible. Zuma was a man of the people, who was accessible. I also believe that South Africans were finding it difficult to relate to the institutions of democracy. We had democracy from 1994… but some people had genuine concerns that the system was unresponsive.”

“Perhaps Zuma is a necessary stage in the development of our country. He represents a particular stage in the development of the system. Whether one is right or wrong, in trying to understand what will happen when Zuma goes, it is important to start from the point of view that he is a product of South African society. One way or another, South Africa has to account for how Zuma emerged from within the ANC and from within our society. This exercise is a necessary step in attempting to understand what will happen when Zuma goes. The problem might not be Zuma himself. The problem might be the common sense of the nation that trusted him to lead. The question is, can the nation be trusted not to repeat the same mistake?”

Mathekga believes the key to how Zuma made it to the ANC presidency and then became president of the country lies in understanding the legacy of Mbeki and in the ongoing evolution of the ANC as a political party.

“If we look closely at Mbeki’s administration style, particularly the way in which the state started to relate to citizens and political parties, it becomes clear that a gap was created between the party and the institutions of government and this gap conveniently accommodated the emerging Jacob Zuma cult. Zuma was packaged as an alternative to Mbeki; however a closer look suggests that Zuma actually represents a particular way in which citizens are trying to relate to the people in power. And it is the antithesis of Mbeki’s approach. The idea of Zuma as an alternative was created in an attempt to normalise the frosty relationship between citizens and the formal institutions of government.”

In 2006, during Zuma’s legal woes, following his axing as deputy president, one would have been forgiven for thinking that this was the beginning, not the end of the Zuma problem.

“Many South Africans believed this was the end of Zuma’s political career, but his personal troubles distracted everyone’s attention from the political circumstances that reigned within the ANC and the country at that time.

“My argument was that the ANC was shifting towards a populist direction and the country, at the time, was willing to embrace such a shift… this was in my view a moment when the party was searching for a political figurehead with whom people could identify, someone who represented a leadership style different from that of the autocratic Mbeki.

“This populist wave was not triggered or created by Jacob Zuma but he would ride the wave to secure the presidency…. and would later abandon the populist ticket once he became president, surrounding himself with a few trusted friends.”

“If indeed the ANC were allowed to conveniently turn the page on Zuma,” writes Mathekga, “the nation would be left to ask whether another Zuma might eventually emerge within the ANC”.

“It is only through a searching analysis of how Zuma emerged within the ANC in particular and in South Africa in general that we can come to a full understanding of what might lie ahead.”

Far from rushing to an ABZ solution, the best way for this whole current crisis to play out, says Mathekga, is for communities to continue to put the ANC under pressure. “The ANC is still electorally dominant. We must continue the conversation about what we want from the ANC. We don’t have to rush to change the electoral system. Let’s exhaust what the current system offers. Also I think South Africans must stop complaining on the sidelines. They must join the parties and participate, not only in the electoral processes but strengthening internal democracy in the party and in other parties.”

Mathekga dedicates a whole chapter of the book to Jacob Zuma and culture, in which he relates how he, JZ, regarded corruption as a Western offence.

“Zuma is smart. He realises that, under apartheid, people’s culture was denied in the common space, and now we have opened the space. Yet democracy has its own principles and its institutions do not actually yield to some of those cultural views. Like the system doesn’t understand the culture of “receiving gifts”.

“In that chapter, I wanted to show there are genuine concerns about how democracy confronts culture, but this is coming from a man with a sinister motive who is driving his own agenda.

“But my view is that, as much as he misused culture, we need to debate how culture confronts the institutions of democracy.

Asked whether South Africa can start looking beyond Zuma – since numerous analysts say he is at his weakest point yet – Mathekga said, “We must look beyond him but we must be realistic about how we look beyond him. We have to disentangle his legacy and avoid another session of Zuma. We know the man himself must go, as he is elderly and tired. But the question is, will he be in a position to continue to influence the ANC even when he has physically gone from power?

“We need to start cutting the tentacles of his influences in the ANC and society. The best way to do it is to push for a different narrative. Thinking beyond Zuma must be about a deeper narrative than what I see. It must be about how to cut his influence gradually. It might take five years or two elections to cut his influence on the party. But this different narrative must be put on the table. The assessment must be done that we have to do a great deal more work to finally get rid of the Zuma value system.”

The main message of When Zuma Goes, says Mathekga is a call for introspection by all South Africans.

“We all share history as South Africans across racial lines. We are all responsible for the leadership we produce.

“As much as people say they’re not responsible for Zuma, the reality is, they live in the space that created him. I say let’s all take responsibility. Then maybe we can turn a corner.”

So, what kind of leader will the South African populace invent next?

“There are different sets of populism emerging in South Africa. We always focus on the crass, street populism that gives us the likes of Zuma. But there’s another populism, private-sector populism. This is the populism that believes if someone has got money and has made it in business, suddenly that person is good to be a leader.

“We are not critically evaluating how they have made it. If you read the mainstream media, there are very few publications – and Noseweek is one of those few – who will say to people, ‘Hey wait, that deal stinks,’ and who will outline why. There is no critical evaluation of the business sector. That’s why this populism is emerging in the business sector.

“I interact a lot with the business sector. My advice is that this won’t help. For example, I have people saying to me, ‘Ramaphosa will be great’. I say, ‘How?’ Some say, ‘because he is a billionaire… so no chance of corruption’. I say, ‘Who says?’

“I am interested in a leader who can take business to task and take a moral position, who can say what they think of nuclear and spending state resources.

“I fear purely business people. I also fear people with no business experience. I am expecting a hybrid leader.”

Zuma’s survival, says Mathekga is rooted in the fact that any dissatisfaction with him can be managed as long as he stays in control of the ANC NEC, the real decision-makers in the party.

Mathekga does not believe Ramaphosa will succeed Zuma.

“If he does, it will be at Zuma’s gift. Zuma is likely to continue till 2019 as president. But it’s a good thing. As South Africans, we need to own up and ride the crisis to the end so that we don’t get a false solution.”

Asked about his own road ahead, Mathekga said his next project is a novel about politics.

“I know a lot about politics. There are certain things I want to say, but am uncomfortable saying them in non-fiction.

“I still have a long story to tell on South African politics. So my best shot at it would be to do a novel. I really want to talk more about the post-apartheid value system, like who we are as a nation, the racial issue, how we deal with it.”

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