/ 9 September 2011

The Survivor guide to ANC politics

The internal politics of the ANC can be hard for outsiders to understand. In fact, insiders very often find themselves baffled too. As an interpretive guide for the perplexed, however, we find the reality television show Survivor to be unsurpassed.

Contestants perform silly tasks to prove their worth and win rewards, which they must share carefully if they are to keep intact relationships with other power players. Above all, they must form alliances, overt and secret, that will help ensure that they avoid ejection at the weekly tribal council, and eventually reach Mangaung — sorry, the season finale.

Crucially, if they reach that last vote by truly offensive means, they will have alienated the “jury” of ousted contestants to such an extent that they stand no chance of winning (are you listening, Thabo Mbeki?).

The story of Julius Malema and Jacob Zuma fits this template perfectly. Their alliance carried Zuma through a crucial vote, but now Malema’s support for the president’s rivals renders him too dangerous to keep around. Malema must be voted off the island to prevent him from using the tribal councils between now and December 2012 to weaken the Zuma tribe.

Another feature of Survivor is handy for understanding recent trends in diplomatic appointments. Contestants may be punished, but kept in play, with a stint on “exile island”.

This is a kind of quarantine away from the main camp that eliminates them from the scheming but doesn’t rule out a comeback. If they are really lucky, they will find on the island a hidden immunity idol that secures them against the dangerous votes their comrades are planning in their absence.

Zuma is particularly fond of the exile island solution to political problems. Ebrahim Rasool was plucked from the wars of the Western Cape to Washington, DC, as ambassador, with the din of scandal still in his ears. Geoff Doidge was punished for his refusal to condone dubious government leases by being sent to the literal island of Sri Lanka. Ousted from the presidency, Vusi Mavimbela is being kept very busy in Zimbabwe.

Indeed, scandal increasingly looks like a qualification for a top diplomatic post. We’ve had sex-pests (Norman Mashabane, former envoy to Indonesia), plagiarists (Mohau Pheko, high commissioner to Canada) and homophobes (Jon Qwelane, who was no doubt welcome in Uganda).

As we report this week, South Africa’s new ambassador to Cuba, a country with which we are supposed to share warm relations, is former Limpopo health and social development MEC Miriam Segabutla, who lost that job following allegations of tender irregularities and nepotism.

It isn’t clear how Cuba feels about being treated as exile island but, if South Africa is serious about its international role, we need better rules about who it is we ask to play on our behalf.