Editorial: Zuma’s fears erode democracy

"The full force of the state is being used to save the president from the embarrassment of continuing protests over him. It is a clampdown on dissent." (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

"The full force of the state is being used to save the president from the embarrassment of continuing protests over him. It is a clampdown on dissent." (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

The State of the Nation address is an opportunity for the president to pronounce on the government’s performance for the past year and on its priorities for the year ahead. In itself, it is an example of how much stock we place in what the president says. When the president speaks, he is communicating his own power. And yet, whatever he says is also a site of struggle, because power is not uncontested here. His meanings must be produced, yes, sustained, yes — but also, they must be challenged.

So we trawled our recent archives and found a wonderful snippet from an address the president made to a cadres forum in KwaDukuza in KwaZulu-Natal in November last year: “When people are sitting in government, there are issues that will arise because of how they govern. People will have different opinions and, as a result, some of these governments become dismantled. Others change their course. Even people who fought together in the trenches become enemies. When those issues arise, they test your character.”

The president appears to be saying to his supporters that governing in a certain way (we’re going to go out on a limb and read this as when the interests of white monopoly capital are endangered), there is dissent that leads to a collapse of the government. Some may choose to change direction, to be more palatable, but holding firm to the original course makes enemies of your comrades and then what you choose to do is the test of who you are.

It is the kind of statement we have grown used to from the president. Filled with invective against a murky enemy, it is meant to convey that the decisions he has taken as president are unpopular with someone “out there”. 

But we can’t let the president go unchallenged. Hence, we can break down the president’s own words to produce meanings better suited to reality.

  • “When people are sitting in government, there are issues that will arise because of how they govern.”

This week, unnoticed by many, five campuses of the Walter Sisulu University were shut down. Protesting students are demanding that access to free registration is expanded. Elsewhere, protesting students at the Durban University of Technology also forced management to suspend academic activities this week. Speaking to News24, the university said it had taken the decision because of the “serious challenges” students faced with accommodation. None of these issues are new, especially at institutions such as the Walter Sisulu University and Durban University of Technology. The government and university management have allowed the situations at our institutions of higher learning to reach the current crisis.

  • “People will have different opinions and, as a result, some of these governments become dismantled.”

This week, businessperson Sipho Pityana made scathing remarks about the president during Save SA’s “real” State of the Nation address. Pityana made it clear that he hopes this will be Zuma’s last, adding that he has failed to deliver on promises relating to unemployment, improved sanitation and free education.

“It’s quite clear that, unless we make our voices heard, Zuma will remain president of this country until 2019, if not longer,” Pityana said.

But people definitely have different opinions. Eyewitness News says a group of people chased Pityana out of SaveSA’s event. Thandeka Siyobi was among them. She said: “We’re struggling and we’re students here, but no one is coming to our aid, so we’re not going to be deceived by Sipho Pityana with his agendas.” Indeed.

  • “Others change their course.”

The electorate delivered a nose-bleeding punch to the ANC in the local government elections last year. Sure, as the ANC is wont to remind us, they did still garner the majority of votes. But even the ANC cannot deny that it is facing a crisis: it can no longer rely on the loyalty of the people alone to deliver votes. It ought to have been a wake-up call. It ought to have inspired the ANC with the vigour to correct itself. Instead, we have more of the same.

  • “Even people who fought together in the trenches become enemies.”

It is clear the president believes himself besieged by a murky network of international states and local actors who seek to engineer his downfall, as well as the decline of the ANC. We’re ready to point out that the ANC appears to be in no need of help in orchestrating its own decline. But the president’s actions are now clearly inspired by this belief that he is under attack. He is paranoid and insecure.

  • “When those issues arise, they test your character.”

This week, the president deployed 441 troops to Cape Town before the State of the Nation address. This number is up from 168 in 2013 and 188 in 2015. Much of the country is left wondering why exactly our armed forces need to be roaming the streets. The speaker of Parliament, Baleka Mbete, says it’s a show of the authority of the state.

The president is fighting for power. And it’s not just against his deputy for the future leadership of the ANC. The full force of the state is being used to save the president from the embarrassment of continuing protests over him. It is a clampdown on dissent. 

And it has a precedent — in community protests over poor service delivery and on our university campuses. Zuma is fighting an insidious battle within his party and he is not sure who he can trust. In response, we have the “securitisation” of our public space. And, if we allow it go unchecked, it will eat away at our democracy. 

 

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