Today I awoke in a different country. This is not to imply any blind optimism about the direction South Africa will now take or the integrity of her new leaders but rather the significance of the Zuma era and what it means to be free of him.
Let us clear the deck of any misty-eyed naivety right from the start. Cyril Ramaphosa is no angel. He has had to play a very long game to get where he is now, which has involved essentially acting as head of a clean up crew for Zuma’s excesses. Passed over for the Presidency after Nelson Mandela in favour of Thabo Mbeki, one can only imagine the single-mindedness he has deployed to reach this position again. Ultimately, he is, at best, tainted by his acquiescence during the Zuma years, at worst, responsible for Zuma getting away with it for as long as he did. Indeed, it was Ramaphosa’s long overdue pushback against him (along with several other rebels within the ANC party elite) that seemed to herald the beginning of the end for Zuma. Not to mention that the Marikana massacre occurred under his watch in his capacity on Lonmin’s board. That being the case, there are several hopeful aspects to a Ramaphosa presidency: he is educated, rational and intelligent where Zuma was a boorish narcissistic bully. He has achieved genuinely remarkable things during the struggle years and particularly during the post-Apartheid negotiations where the close relationship between him and Roelf Meyer kept the lines of communication open following the murder of Chris Hani, when the country could well have torn itself apart. Furthermore, he has been an activist, a trade unionist and a successful businessman which has several implications. He can walk comfortably in all those worlds, he is likely to take a pro-business approach that will benefit the South African economy and, being independently wealthy, he doesn’t have any need to rob the country blind. The intoxication of power can have very unpredictable results, so it remains to be seen if he can prove my relative optimism to be justified but the initial signs at least are somewhat reassuring.
We were merely pawns in his game, to be manipulated and turned against one another if his own antics started garnering too much attention.
Jacob Zuma, on the other hand, is not merely a career politician. South Africa under Jacob Zuma, particularly in recent years, was not a functioning democracy in almost anything but name. Zuma was intent on turning our beautiful country into his own personal property, our polity into a corporation running it for his maximum benefit and our people into biddable serfs vulnerable to divide and rule. And when the money was good enough, he was more than happy to sell off some of his ill-gotten property to a foreign crime family.
The reason he thought he could get away with this was his low opinion of the South African people. We were merely pawns in his game, to be manipulated and turned against one another if his own antics started garnering too much attention.
A major turning point, and perhaps the moment when he finally overplayed his hand, was his firing of our Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, generally regarded as a safe pair of hands, doing his best to keep the economy on track while traversing very hairy political and ideological obstacles. This was done under extremely shady circumstances and the fatuous claim that he was a puppet of “white monopoly capital” and needed to be removed to clear a path for “radical economic transformation” (his other favourite new buzz-phrase). Of course, Zuma being Zuma, it was obvious to everyone apart from callous ANC cronies and deluded ideologues that these were just another clumsy patchwork of lies, designed to create division in society and draw the attention away from the continued consolidation of his power (and of his informal employers, the Gupta family) and his removal of any dissenting voices within the ANC top brass. It was for its role in this that the PR Firm Bell Pottinger has been brought to account in a very public and costly manner (another heartening crumb of poetic justice in all this).
After Gordhan’s dismissal, much of the political fallout was often drowned out by the culture skirmish that followed. Protests against Zuma were labelled by the culture warriors as being only a white middle class concern that white people only care about the country when the economy is at risk; white people are just trying to hold onto their power; white people only care about matters financial so they can prop up their patriarchal capitalistic hegemony. Many in these ideological circles, who also claim to despise Zuma themselves, refused to take part in protests against him for this reason, without any care for why it was important or the consequences of allowing a crook like Zuma to go about his dirty business unopposed. Zuma and his retinue stumbled on a golden ticket; the perfect social ecosystem for divide and rule.
This embodied the cynicism of the Zuma age; liberation rhetoric dredged up to divide people and stoke up hatred, the weaponisation of poverty and frustration by the very government who are charged with alleviating it, and the fleecing of an entire population by a so-called leader who lives by the narcissistic tautology that he is entitled to his position by virtue of his position.
Today, South Africa is a different country, not because of any particular promise for the future, but by the repudiation of the past. South Africa is a new country because maybe now we can actually get on with the business of being a country and not merely the staff quarters in the expansive palace of a squalid gangster.
South Africa never ceases to amaze me. It seems we can come so close to the precipice and still pull ourselves back, our resilience and character bruised but intact. Whatever comes next, today it feels good to be an African.
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