The politics of perception and uncertainty

A number of political events in the past few weeks have made me wish that power play had much clearer outcomes, results that left no room for conjecture or vain claims of victory.

In many forms of contest, including sport, the judging panels are often constituted by an odd number of people so that there can never be a draw or an evenly split, contradictory outcome. How I wish politics was like that: categorical, definitive and final.

When South Africa failed to get Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma elected as the African Union commission chair but the incumbent, Jean Ping, also did not get enough votes to keep the post, we were left wondering: did we win or lose?

But the most interesting example is that of Julius Malema’s disciplinary appeals verdict. We have yet to find out whether he won or lost. Many a South African spent Saturday afternoon waiting to hear the young man’s fate. But what we received in the end was another process, more bureaucracy and yet more mindless commentary. This left those who love to hate Malema celebrating his demise, while his supporters claimed victory because the disciplinary committee was deemed to have been unfair.

Malema made sure he came across as unfazed by blasting music loudly and jiving in his Range Rover on his way to attend the ANC national executive committee meeting on Sunday, yet at the same time, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe let it be known that the party had chosen to be magnanimous to Malema, revealing that it had opted to be “political” rather than “legalistic” by not enforcing the young man’s suspension.

So, we never got to know who won because the winners claimed they were playing like gentlemen, while the losers uncorked the champagne.

And I was left with the same question about nationalisation. One of the big reasons Malema had to be removed from the public space as a face of the ANC was the uncertainty he was creating in the economy by continually raising the spectre of nationalisation. But, just as he is about to disappear, Mantashe reveals — lo and behold — that nationalisation is in fact an ANC debate, not a Malema issue.

Mantashe, also chairperson of the South African Communist Party, warned that the ANC would not be dissuaded from discussing nationalisation just because investors were threatening to walk away from South Africa if they did.

Those who had complained about the young man’s careless pronouncements on the economy and were looking for “certainty” and a “stable” environment were left none the wiser. Then, this past Monday, the confusion got even worse. The minister responsible for planning, Trevor Manuel, told mining investors in Cape Town that soon there would be policy clarity and that they should not believe any “doomsayer” making noise on the topic. But why should we believe Manuel over the party chief?

In the same fashion, someone still needs to clarify for me whether we “won” at the AU by stopping Ping from getting another term as AU chair. Even if, by some stretch of the imagination, we insist on calling it a victory, it would be a negative victory because what we really wanted was to take over the reins of the AU commission.

South Africa should reassess its strategies and come up with smarter ways to assert itself on the continent. It should be wary of the perception that it is playing Big Brother.

The argument from our foreign-affairs department is that we wanted to take over the position of AU chair not for our sake, but for the sake of the continent. The logic was that we needed a strong country and a powerful individual unencumbered by economic interests to fearlessly lead Africa’s battles, ostensibly because the current chair lacked the confidence to be decisive at critical times because of pressure from Western superpowers.

South Africa has, within two years, twice been granted a seat on the United Nations Security Council. We hosted the prestigious Fifa World Cup and we play many other leadership roles in accordance with our status as an African economic powerhouse. Other Africans are possibly starting to feel that we are on a power-grab mission. For the AU chair, South Africa should have considered the possibility of nominating a candidate from a smaller country, one with which we have good relations and with which we share a vision about how the AU commission should work.

We have to engender trust on the continent and have the confidence to delegate to our fellows. Otherwise, why should the rest of the continent trust us? Just because we ask them to? Not as long as politics is a matter of perception, uncertainty and no definitive outcome.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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Rapule Tabane
Guest Author
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