Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown

As we mark the departure of Julius Malema, a big player, from our political landscape, we must also remember to shed a tear of sympathy for President Jacob Zuma. You may ask why, given how he has decisively dealt with Malema—and how far ahead of his competitors he seems in the race for Mangaung. But it is important to remember that before he could settle down and say “Mahlamba Ndlopfu”, word had already leaked that some of his comrades wanted him out of office.

Unlike president Thabo Mbeki before him, Zuma was not allowed to enjoy his time in office before someone decided to oust him.
It is not clear whether he committed any fundamental mistakes in that short period after he took over as president of the ANC and then of the country, but clearly someone had deemed him unfit.

It took, if you recall, eight solid years of Mbeki’s presidency for resentment, anger and disillusionment to set in. He was initially allowed the space to govern, even if the ANC’s alliance partners were critical of his policy measures, particularly on privatisation.

You could argue that Mbeki had more room because he was elected uncontested, but that would not provide us with a true picture of the underlying tensions that preceded and dominated the Mafikeng conference in 1997. Once Mbeki was elected president, however, the ANC—in the old spirit of rallying around and supporting its leaders, a spirit it emptily boasts about today—did, in fact, extend a helping hand to him.

Anyone who sought to analyse the president critically was quickly rebuffed in the interests of the unity of the ANC. This was during a period when the party used to argue that any attack on its president was actually aimed at the party itself. I remember Steve Tshwete’s quick rebuttal of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela when she gave an interview in which she said the party was not delivering for the poor.

“For her to try to denigrate ... the president after the terrible pain she has caused him,” said Tshwete, “not only smacks of insensitivity, but also serves the campaign of those who want to undermine social transformation by questioning the integrity of the most senior leadership of the ANC.”

The point of this regurgitation of history is that Mbeki governed and imposed his style and beliefs on the party for most of the two terms he served. By the time he left, we knew exactly what he thought of the major issues of the day, which is why he generated a substantial layer of critics who specialised in analysing his presidency. By contrast, Zuma is past the halfway stage of his first term and we still do not know where he really stands on any major issues. We have to make do with hints and actions that, now and then, allow us a glimpse of the man behind the grin and the dance.

But the matter of his policy preferences is one for another day. Its relevance here is that the man was not even given a chance to make mistakes before the guns were aimed in his direction. And this drawing of guns was a grave miscalculation to make about Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma. As others have pointed out before, no one in this country can fight a personal battle as well as the man from Nkandla. He is a true warrior who fights to win and ensures that the war never comes back to him again. Now, if he would only use his prowess to fight for the poor and the marginalised in this country.

The kind of guile and viciousness that was used to fight Malema and his immediate lieutenants is the type of fighting we need to knock out and flatten poverty forever. For let it be clear: Malema was not expelled from the party merely because he flouted some ANC regulations. If the enforcement of ill discipline were among the criteria for facing disciplinary charges, many in the party, including the top six officials, would be history.

That Malema misbehaved, repeatedly, is not in question. But that he ended up expelled from the party tells an entirely different tale, of which the infraction of the ANC disciplinary code of conduct is only one element. ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu and national disciplinary committee chairperson Derek Hanekom can reiterate as often as they like that they merely followed the ANC constitution, but that does not tell the true story of what is happening. Politically, Malema also miscalculated badly and fought in the wrong weight division.

But although Zuma can legitimately claim that he was not even given a chance to fail before he was put on the defensive, ordinary South Africans should not be saddled with this saga. We should be debating policy preferences for the country and asking whether we necessarily need a change in personnel for this country to function better.

It is tragic that we should be stuck in this pre- and post-Polokwane or pre- and post-Mangaung milieu that dictates every aspect of our lives. Zuma owes us much, much more.

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