Pretence in the time of ANC politics

A lot of people can’t stand the politics of election time. The posturing, word wars and never-ending ticker tape of media headlines screaming out one inane detail after another about this or that candidate can turn you off the news entirely.

I’m not one of those people.

Back in 2008 I was glued to YouTube for the whole sorry saga of Sarah Palin’s bid to become deputy president of the United States. I read every salacious detail about her family drama and watched all the parody skits that Tina Fey could churn out. I loved the theatre of it: The massive halls filled with red, white and blue balloons and the comically patriotic Americans getting teary-eyed over the innate goodness of the hockey mum. And that’s before I even get started on Barack Obama’s gobsmackingly amazing campaign.

I know you’re feeling me on this year’s Republican feeding frenzy. Never before have I seen GOP candidates turn on each other so viciously. It’s a no-holds barred contest between a bunch of people with the most un-American names to ever gun for the Republican presidential nominee.

You’ve probably been keeping up but I’ll give you a short intro just so I get to amuse myself again. In the lead we have Mitt-ens-to-hide-my-fistloads-of-tax-free-cash Romney. Sneaking up behind him with increasing strength is the near-unpronounceable Newt Gingrich, whose name sounds suspiciously like a character straight out of Harry Potter. And then, of course, there is the tragically comic figure of Rick Santorum, whose name I still can’t hear without vomiting a little in my mouth, thanks to the violence administered to his surname by a certain Google bomb.

Newt’s assault on Mitt has been particularly spectacular. He commissioned an entire “documentary” ripping off the man, and made sure it got major airplay. They’re brutally honest about their aspirations and every more brutal about the opposition’s failing. And it all plays out blow by blow for the public to see and decide upon.

It makes me green with envy.

Because here in South Africa things couldn’t be more different. We have exactly the same situation currently: the ruling ANC is in the throes of a bruising leadership battle ahead of the party’s elective conference in December. But getting anyone in the party to acknowledge what we know as fact is harder than getting Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe to put the words “me” and “Mangaung” anywhere near each other in a sentence.

If I have to see another ANC leader sniffily say that they “support the party, not an individual”, I’m going to throw something at my TV. Yes, I believe in the non-western value of communal decision making but give me a break: we all know you have a preferred candidate. If you support the party, logically you would want a leader whom you believe will take it in the direction you believe to be right.

It would be so incredibly refreshing to have the two candidates — Jacob Zuma and Motlanthe, or whoever else — simply step forward with their respective camp of supporters and go: “Hey ANC delegates! This is why you should vote for me and not him.” It’s not going to happen, of course. Tokyo Sexwale tried launching his presidential ambitions in 2007 in a refreshingly open manner. It was a miserable failure. Then, and now, the move was too alien to the ruling party with its Soviet-era paranoia and backroom dealings.

Instead we’re left in this utterly ridiculous situation where no one knows for sure who is actually contending for the top job and why they think they should get it. Analysts constantly guess while the candidates themselves try to get the message out to the rest of the ANC in a manner akin to ventriloquism: Keeping their mouth shut like a good ANC member and getting others to do the talking.

This means we as the public must continue being subjected to the bizarre proxy wars conducted by different camps via the ANC Youth League and others.

It also means journalism is put at major risk. Already we’re seeing strategic leaks to reporters in attempts by one side to discredit another. Just go make your own documentary or advert, damnit. If it’s propaganda you’re after, just call it that and leave the media — and our increasingly confused readers — out of it.

Give us black, green and gold balloons in big auditoriums and theatrical speeches, ending with an honest vote by informed ANC delegates. Inspire or at least entertain us.

It’s human to support an individual as a leader. Don’t pretend you’re above such things. Because I’d rather you guys took a leaf out of the GOP’s handbook and fight it out publicly and honestly then pretend otherwise, while conducting a covert war that leaves the rest of us helpless, confused and not a just a little fearful about the future.

  • Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G online. You can read her column every week here, and follow her on Twitter here.
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