By Mary Serumaga*
South Africa’s once revered ANC ruling party now behaves as if it is entitled to the republic. The motto on the country’s parliamentary coat of arms may as well be changed from ‘We, the People’ to ‘We, the ANC.’ Firebrand opposition leader Julius Malema may have a point when he says the liberation party is turning the country into just another banana republic.
In moving the motion for South African President Zuma’s impeachment for violating the Constitution, leader of the opposition, Mmusi Maimane (Democratic Alliance), invoked the names of the venerated Oliver Tambo, Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada, pillars of the African National Congress (ANC). Kathrada, who served 18 years on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela and one-time ANC deputy president Walter Sisulu, is the only living member of this quintet. On 2 April 2016 he authored an open letter to Jacob Zuma urging him to resign. That alone should have given Jacob Zuma and the ANC pause.
It did not. President Zuma defied a ruling by the Public Protector (Ombudsman) that he should repay public funds used to upgrade his personal estate at Nkandla. Opposition parties petitioned the Constitutional Court which upheld the Public Protector’s ruling. What followed was an emotionally taut debate with speakers from the ruling ANC scraping the barrel in an effort to exonerate Zuma. As was to be expected, faux Pan-Africanism featured strongly in arguments in defense of this latest example of state capture by politically savvy elites. Chief Zuma defender, Mmamoloko Kubayi (ANC), reminded the House that Zuma had ‘humbled himself to the Nation’, apologized and undertaken to repay the sums (reported variously as $13 million, $16 million and $23 million) spent on his swimming pool, gym, amphitheatre and kraal.
Offering further hubris clothed as humility, Kubayi lectured the House that since its inception 104 years ago, the ANC has distinguished itself from all other organizations by its capacity for openness (read shamelessness) about its failings which has led “to where we are”, that is, the post-apartheid era. The implication being the ANC is entitled to the Republic. By this reasoning, the motto on South Africa’s parliamentary coat of arms may as well be changed from We, the People to We, the ANC.
An angry intervention from an (Economic Freedom Fighters) EFF woman MP bluntly accusing ANC members of being criminals, fraudsters and thugs was met with disdain by Kubayi who put it down to an attempt to effect regime change outside the democratic process. Impeachment, she said, is “not in the vocabulary of South African politics.” The ANC she argued has a culture in which it is able to “self-correct, self-criticize, self-introspect and self-reflect.”
Most distasteful and yet most predictable was the Pan-Africanist posturing. Kubayi called on South Africans to defend the sovereignty of the Republic by resisting foreign criticism such as that in a New York Times editorial commenting on the Nkandla affair. She quoted a lengthy statement by Mwalimu Nyerere to envoys accredited to Tanzania in 1978. In it Nyerere chided Western Europe for persisting in treating newly independent African states as appendages of their own countries. The emotional but deft response from Philip Mhlongo (EFF) was that Mwalimu Nyerere, if he were alive, would have supported Ahmed Kathrada’s call for Zuma to step down. Mosiuoa Lekota, leader of Congress of the People (COPE), lamented that corruption in the ANC, specifically the diversion of public funds for private use, is not what people endured prison and gave their lives for.
The only light relief came from the EFF benches. Clad as always in their uniform of tomato red workers’ overalls and hardhats, the EFF put one in mind of a chorus in a Greek tragedy. Swiveling their necks and extending defiant forearms, they rose by turns individually and in unison to pour scorn on the ANC. “Deputy Speaker, I would just like to check with you, is this the very same member (Kubayi) that during the Nkandla debate painted her nails?” During Kubayi’s flustered response, the questioner remained on her feet, miming painting her own nails. When President Zuma’s credentials were fronted as a reason to oppose impeachment, another EFF member rose on a point of order and asked whether the ANC speaker was aware the Emperor he was praising was naked.
The similarity with Greek morality dramas ended there; there was no retribution and the villain of the piece triumphed. The motion for impeachment was defeated by 233 to 143. Post-vote, Mmusi Maimane attempted to insist the ANC is breaking law, and was summarily informed by the Speaker of the House the debate was over and the issue disposed of.
Maimane was left to repeat the charge on the steps outside, flanked by a subdued Julius Malema and an exhausted but articulate Lekota who lamented that by the same token the majority ANC could pass resolutions/laws to commit other illegalities, including murder. Lekota proposed an amendment to address the lacuna in the Constitution that allows the majority to endorse illegal acts by their government. Maimane believed the South African people would revolt in the coming municipal elections by voting ANC representatives out. Given that African leadership seems impervious to the checks and balances of Parliamentary democracy, and the absence of a visible alternative, a revolt is unlikely to come.
Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth emphasizes the need in politics to keep the masses informed, learn from them and to move with them. The mistake made by parliamentary opposition parties is, according to Fanon, to resort to the rural population only when votes are needed to implement plans crafted by urban elites.
The failure of the masses to see a causal link between mismanaged and under-funded public services and their dollar-a-day earnings on the one hand and on the other not just poor but malicious governance is evident in voting patterns that show opposition candidates doing well in urban areas while rural areas vote mainly for the incumbent, however corrupt or inept.
In Uganda, for example, the week before Zuma’s ordeal, wild cheering and dancing in the street followed a Supreme Court ruling that the President was duly elected despite evidence of brazen electoral fraud; the second such ruling of his presidency.
A few days prior to that, in Congo Brazzaville, disgruntled opponents of President Sassou Nguesso’s successful modification of the constitution to extend his term in office were involved in skirmishes with the security forces, having failed to prevent the state jack by parliamentary means.
Much further north, on the day of the failed impeachment bid in South Africa, the Prime Minister of Iceland was in the process of resigning after his party refused to support him against allegations of financial impropriety: the failure to declare his wife’s investments. Compare and contrast, as our teachers used to say.
Back outside Parliament, ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu gave an interview. The original offense of spending money on non-government business was wrong, he conceded. It was also unfortunate that the ANC, on the basis of advice (impliedly bad) from lawyers, disregarded the ruling of the Public Protector requiring the President to refund all expenditure not related to making his residence secure. He expressed regret that the ANC and Zuma only acted after the Constitutional Court had ruled on the matter, but, he pointed out, the Constitutional Court did say it did not amount to a serious breach of the rules. “Nowhere did ConCourt say that there was a serious breach….”
South Africa, once the envy of all of Africa, blending as it did every natural blessing a nation could have with a working public sector infrastructure, was the destination of choice for African business, conferences, training programmes, tourism, shopping, honeymoons (especially honeymoons) and relocation. It is now as plagued by frequent power cuts as elsewhere on the Continent, short of essential drugs with uncollected rubbish in the streets, shabby public spaces and disinterested public servants. Malema may have a point, however crudely put, when he says the ANC is turning the country into just another banana republic.
* Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan writer.