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Columnist Andrew Donaldson doesn’t mince his words. His RW Johnson piece is still one of the sites best read articles. And in yet another masterpiece, he sits down with political commentator Justice Malala following the release of his book: We Have Now Begun Our Descent: How to Stop South Africa Losing Its Way. It’s a book which takes aim at what’s wrong with the ANC’s rotting corpse, and taking no prisoners, all fingers point to its president, Jacob Zuma. Malala puts forward an 11-point plan to literally stop the ANC from losing its way. He ponders why an organisation that refused to build a personality cult around Nelson Mandela would allow itself to become a mere tool in the hands of Zuma. And despite him saying the organisation is rotting with Zuma at its core, he does say it’s still very much alive if problems can be dealt with. Malala also looks at the threats from the opposition parties, namely the DA and EFF, with the former losing steam and the latter gaining. Malala says it is now time to vote for delivery, not history. It’s some fascinating political insight from a man with a deep attachment to the ANC party. The article first appeared on PoliticsWeb. – Stuart Lowman
By Andrew Donaldson
Much of Justice Malala’s engaging and angry new polemic, We Have Now Begun Our Descent: How to Stop South Africa Losing its Way (Jonathan Ball), will come as no great surprise to anyone who has kept at least half an eye on our ruinous decline, particularly during the years of Jacob Zuma’s presidency. We are only too aware of the country we have become: corrupt, crime-ridden, compromised, ineptly managed, our institutions beggared and crippled by a political elite that is hell bent on enriching itself at the expense of others.
It is, however, the closing pages of the book, the ones that deal with its subtitle, that intrigue. Malala – a political commentator seemingly made for the masses – argues “we have the wherewithal to turn things around: our lauded Constitution, the wealth of talent that exists, our history of activism and a democratic trajectory can all be used to stop the rot”. There is, of course, a caveat: “South Africans of all walks of life need to wake up and act, or else they will soon find their country has been stolen.”
A crisis is now upon us, he warns, and we need to act with urgency. Behold then, if I may, the Malala Plan to restore a Zuma-ravaged nation and “give it the ‘lift’ it needs to avoid disaster”.
There are 11 points to the Malala Plan. They offer much food for thought. Malala, himself, is rather modest about his suggestions. “They are not exhaustive,” he writes, “but perhaps we can begin that journey back to greatness by debating, and implementing, some of them.” (He has given them bumper sticker-ish headlines, and some of them can indeed be seen as rallying cries. “After Two Decades, it is Time to Vote for Delivery, not History”, “Protect Our Great Constitution and its Institutions”, “Stop Obsessing About Mineral Wealth. Obsess About Values-Based Leadership”, “Back to School”, etc.)
Early on in the book, Malala seemingly writes off the ruling party as being quite dead. “At the heart of the ANC’s rotting corpse,” he says, “stood one man: its president, Jacob Zuma. . .” But a few pages on, it emerges that this assessment of the party’s health is a little premature; the ANC is sick – but it’s still very much alive. Such is Malala’s desire to see it back on its feet in the rude health it enjoyed some 20 years ago, that the book could well have been subtitled How to Stop the ANC Losing its Way.
His attachment to the ANC is deep. He writes movingly of the death of his 14-year-old brother, Ernest, in 1991, struck by a bakkie outside the village of New Eersterus, just north of Pretoria. At his tin shack home, his mother is weeping silently. He feels helpless. “I don’t know what to do, what to hold.” Ernest, he adds, was special, and at that age, already a seasoned political activist, a member of the Young Pioneers.
“And so, when he died, the ANC in the village rallied to my family’s cause. It was not just that my brother was a committed ANC member at just 14. My brother Eric had been an activist and was beaten and detained for months by the Bophutatswana police in the 1980s. My younger sister was a fierce student activist. I had helped launch the local ANC and ANC Youth League branches in the village, becoming the first acting branch secretary-general of the unbanned ANC in 1990.”
Now he asks, how can “an organisation that refused to build a personality cult around Nelson Mandela allow itself to become a mere tool in the hands of Zuma? What kind of leaders does it have that it can cast aside the party’s historical mission – to transform the lives of millions of poor black people and build a united, non-racial, prosperous and democratic country – and work as gophers for Zuma?”
* * *
When Malala and I meet at a Cape Town bookstore for our interview, the newspapers are full of reports of the #FeesMustFall protests and it prompts the question: Is our Tunisia Day upon us? Are we heading for an Arab Spring-type uprising?
“I think what’s happening with the students is a warning sign and a warning shot that we’ve put our head in the sand,” he says. “I think if we don’t listen and don’t act there’s going to be a big explosion in South Africa. The key difference – and people need to be very aware of this – the key difference between us and the Arab Spring is that people here still feel that there is a space for them to be heard. They still feel ‘I vote every five years and so I let off some steam.’
“But other than that, there’s high unemployment; lots of young people on the streets. If you look at the numbers that came out the other day, where three million young people, between 20 and 24, are unemployed. That situation is exactly like Tunisia. The higher you go up (in unemployment), past 25% to 26%, the closer you get to that scenario.”
He points out that, in May this year, Police Minister Nathi Nhleko told Parliament that in the year to March there were a staggering 14 700 incidents of unrest in the country – community and service delivery protests.
“Who are those people who are in those unrest situations? It’s not the university kids. It’s people in communities somewhere in South Africa. It means, for me, that you have an extraordinary situation where 40 communities a day are rising up against some councillor – and largely an ANC councillor. I think the warning signs are ticking up. That marker for me is very close.”
Unlike the student protests, he says, this community anger was apparently escaping the attention of the ruling elite. The students had got what they wanted, and the authorities have done away with fee increases.
“But the big problem is this. In 2016, in February, when all the university students get back, we will be faced with exactly the same problem, do you not increase the fees in 2016? When the students push for free education, what do you do? Do you put a plaster over it; just paper over it? Which is what we’ve done with the no increase demand. And I think that’s going to put pressure on the budget.”
Where will this money come from?
“That, for me, defines the problem. Do we have the kind of leadership that understands we’re heading towards a tipping point? That something needs to be done? That either we stop populist politics or, because you’re in an alliance with the public sector trade unions, you accede to their demands and wipe out your R64-billion contingency reserves. So now you’re sitting absolutely broke, and that’s the fiscal cliff that everyone’s talking about.”
* * *
We turn to discuss the “brazen” culture of corruption in the ruling elite. “I don’t want to blame Jacob Zuma for everything that we are going through,” Malala says, “but I do think that under his leadership the ANC has deteriorated so the corruption that has gripped the ANC has accelerated under him to a vast extent. The fact that, despite all the noises and the investigations that we’ve had around Nkandla, the example is that if you’re politically-connected you will get away with it and maybe some other official may get a slap on the wrist. But quite frankly, under Jacob Zuma, at all levels of political leadership, at provincial level, at municipal level, it’s essentially a free-for-all. I want to blame the ANC but I think we have to put political responsibility where it deserves to be put. It rots from the head. I think Jacob Zuma is a big chunk of where the rot has come from.”
In his book he suggests it’s time Zuma “put up his hand” to acknowledge that his policies have failed and step down. Who then would succeed him?
“Well,” he laughs, “I’ve come around to the fact that, actually, Jacob Zuma is not going to do that. He’s not going to step down unless he is sure about who succeeds him. At the moment, it looks pretty clear that the winner of the race between [Deputy President] Cyril Ramaphosa and [African Union commissioner] Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will be Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
“He won’t be stepping down until he is absolutely confident that the person who is going to succeed him will not make life difficult for him, and so that is why he has been working behind the scenes, very hard, to get [ex-wife] Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma elected as ANC president.” (A few days later it’s reported that the Congress of South African Trade Unions, in fact, back Ramaphosa to lead the alliance from 2017. Malala, however, believes believes the rumours of a rift between Zuma and Ramaphosa to be true.)
There is, of course, also the possibility that Zuma could step down for health reasons. “We saw last year, 2014, that he was very ill, after the elections. It looked very bad when he was helped into parliament by [ANC chair and Speaker] Baleka Mbete. So that would be one reason,” Malala says.
“The point I’m trying to make about that relationship [between Zuma and his ex-wife] is that . . . well, I think he once said of [former president] Thabo Mbeki that he wants to rule from the grave and I think Zuma wants to do that. Whoever comes after him must be beholden to him for having got to where they are. So that they can be reminded that, actually, ‘Don’t start any machinations because you could lose power. Because the people who put you where you are, they are my people.’”
Among the more telling questions asked of Zuma this year was this one, with regard to the security upgrades at Nkandla: “How is it possible that a man can be president of the country and know so little?” Malala believes this to be a convenient persona he has adopted.
“I think sometimes it’s just wilful ignorance, that he knows but he pretends not to know. I don’t think he’s a details person, so when it comes to things that matter – the things that affect the economy, the young people of this country – it’s sort of, ‘Oh, go and sort it out,’ to his cabinet, but I think that on the things that concern him, personally, he is on top of the story. I think he knows a lot about that. He’s more concerned about that, really, than running South Africa. I don’t think Jacob Zuma concentrates on South Africa much. He’s concentrating on Jacob Zuma.”
And it isn’t just the party that he’s put before the Constitution?
“I think if you look at the trajectory of Jacob Zuma since 2005 it’s not just that the ANC comes first, it’s that the ANC comes first so that it can be used for his own personal benefit. So its Zuma number one, it’s ANC two, and then South Africa a distant third. The whole thing is just embarrassing and very annoying. Unfortunately, the big thing that he’s managed to do, is harm the ANC, which has an incredible history and an incredible DNA. That’s what he’s done. The ANC is in a bad state, because he’s put it in a bad state. However bad it was under Mbeki.”
Not only bad, but backward – particularly with Zuma’s shoring up of a support base in rural areas with the traditional leaders and chiefs.
“He has taken the ANC from being a modern party and has flattered, has kowtowed, has basically tried to pass legislation that gives more power to traditional leaders. He has offered them [allowance and salary] increases that has made them richer than they’ve ever been. He has grown the ANC as a rural party. Particularly in KwaZulu-Natal where he has used state largesse to unseat the Inkatha Freedom Party from its blessed place next to the Zulu king [Goodwill Zwelithini].
“And that is why, for example, he couldn’t act, and wouldn’t act, against the Zulu king for those horrific xenophobic comments. The ANC, since 2009, basically has just been buttering up traditional leaders at the expense of ordinary people in rural areas who live under the thumb of these traditional leaders and I think that has been done, despite the fact that many people – NGOs and the like – have warned that you are taking away the rights of ordinary people and putting them in the hands of traditional leaders who hold sway over them as if we’re living in the 14th century.”
* * *
Which brings us to next year’s local elections. One of the points of the Malala Plan suggest that it was not time to vote for delivery, not history – yet it is that history that has resulted in such a fierce devotion to the ruling party, and a brand loyalty that is often puzzling. How long does he see that lasting?
“I think it’s already dissipating,” he says. “So I think the 2016 election will be very, very hotly contested and the ANC is going to suffer a few setbacks. Not just from the Democratic Alliance, but from the Economic Freedom Fighters as well. And I think that’s a good thing. That’s a fantastic thing. Many people who have voted for the ANC, not because they’re stupid, but because the ANC does have a wonderful history, will begin to see the benefits of competition in the system. And the benefits of competition in the system is that even the ANC will have realised that people will not always vote for [them] because [they’re] the ANC, they will start asking why the lights aren’t working, why is nothing done about the potholes, why is there no water, and they will vote for someone who will fix all that.”
Julius Malema’s party, Malala predicts, will do surprisingly well at the polls next year. “October [and the march on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange] showed us a more robust EFF on the streets than we’ve ever seen. That indicates to me that they’ve got branches in Gauteng, and those branches managed to get guys into taxis, and bring them into Johannesburg city centre. And that means they have a network whereas every other party that’s going to go against the ANC donesn’t have branch networks. They’ve sort of operated at a national level with national leaders but no real something on the ground.”
What of this talk of a possible EFF-DA coalition – or not?
“I think [DA parliamentary leader] Mmusi Maimane made a terrible mistake by first saying to [Business Day columnist] Gareth van Onselen that he was considering it, you know, and that all options are open. Then he turned around to the Sunday Times and said he’d never do that. I think he should be open to it. He called it very badly.”
Malala suggests a scenario where a DA-EFF coalition could unseat the ANC in Tshwane, for example, but if Maimane refused, then an ANC-EFF coalition would step into the void, with Malema possibly being mayor of Pretoria. This, after all, is what Helen Zille did to become mayor of Cape Town, he says, and then Western Cape premier.
On the whole, Maimane has not impressed Malala. “It’s been six months since he was elected [as DA parliamentary leader] and I don’t think he’s shown what his substance is. He continues to be kind of all over the place I think thats where the problem lies.”
What’s missing, he says, is the “relentless single-mindedness” of other party leaders. “I think that a lot of people [in the DA] are looking towards Lindiwe Mazibuko, you know, in a few months, or a few years. As someone who might come back. I think if you’ve been in the top job for six months and people are already succession planning for you in a party where on average people have been leaders for ten years then you have to ask yourself, ‘What’s going on?’ I don’t think he’s got his hands on the party. That’s problematic for an opposition that wants to unseat the ruling party. So I think the DA is losing steam. I think the EFF is gaining some ground.”
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