Spare us the red herrings

The season of red herrings, kite-flying and cat-and-mouse games is back with us in the political landscape.

The fluidity, uncertainty and unpredictability of daily political events and the unravelling of the ruling party sees politicians throwing all sorts of scenarios and solutions at the South African public to see how we react. Based on their interpretation of our reaction, they then decide on a course of action.

One of those thrown into the mix is the accusation of tribalism in the ANC by Mosiuoa Lekota, who is leading a breakaway from the party.

Lekota spoke eloquently two weeks ago about the dangers of tribalism and how the very founding of the ANC was based on the need to fight the demon of tribalism.

It is a valid point. Indeed, tribalism has the potential to destroy everything we have tried to achieve as a nation since 1994. But what was Lekota talking about? All he could point to by way of evidence was the 100% Zuluboy T-shirts worn by supporters of ANC president Jacob Zuma.

I remember seeing those for the first time at the ANC’s National General Council (NGC) in June 2005, when Zuma had just been fired as deputy president of the country and had also stepped down as ANC deputy president. He was then down and out. I remember the head of the presidency, Smuts Ngonyama, at a press conference just before that, insisting that the NGC was a policy conference and the leadership would not allow discussion of Zuma’s “personal” circumstances.

History has since recorded that this platform in fact created a wave of events which culminated in Zuma’s dramatic ascent to the ANC presidency last year. It was the T-shirts, “umshini wam” and other newly coined slogans that sustained the momentum around Zuma’s fightback.

Although, then, the T-shirts did not immediately shout tribalism to me (portraying, as Kgalema Motlanthe said then, an organisation in pain), they were in fact tribalist. But Lekota remained chairperson of the ANC for another two-and-a-half years and failed to act against them. To try to blame tribalism on the new leadership of the ANC is disingenuous, to say the least.

But he does have a point that Zuma, in whose name the T-shirts were made, has kept quiet about this matter, as he has on many other occasions when thugs have acted in his name, abused party tradition and attacked state institutions.

There is no doubt that a section of those supporters from KwaZulu-Natal did see in Zuma one of their own who was being unfairly denied his turn on the throne. But it is a telling sign of the maturity of our democracy that no one has risen to the bait. We have failed to see others declare themselves 110% Basotho or 100% Xhosa in response. This is because South Africans have largely refused to be identified in their apartheid designations.

Remember that the apartheid grandmasters’ rationale for separating the different nations in the country was that they feared civil unrest if the Xhosas, Zulus, Basotho, Shangaans and Vendas were allowed to mix. Fact is, we have defeated apartheid and all that underpinned it.

Given the noises and actions of Zuma supporters since Polokwane, Lekota probably has genuine reasons to wonder whether our democracy will be safe under these guys. But Lekota should not use emotive language to re-open a painful sore that South Africans have long overcome. Neither the Zuma nor Mbeki groups has a tribalistic character and Lekota should not create a straw man to knock.

Nelson Mandela was apprehensive about tribalism when he preferred Cyril Ramaphosa (a Venda) to succeed him rather than another Xhosa (Mbeki) as ANC president in 1997. But, if anything, support for the ANC increased in the subsequent elections of 1999 and 2004.

Spare us the bogey man and the red herrings, Terror. It’s like Archbishop Desmond Tutu saying he won’t vote next year because the ANC has built small RDP houses, which have been with us since 1994! It is Zuma you can’t stand, Archbishop. Say it.

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane


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