In his reply to questions on the State of the Nation address, President Jacob Zuma, in a moment of unguarded candour, gave his definition of patriotism and the role of the political opposition. The exposition was fascinating and it may well be examined by future presidential historians who wish to understand his beliefs about the nature of democracy.
Responding to the recent joint action by the eight parliamentary opposition parties which comprise the multi-party opposition forum, Zuma suggested that the opposition project ran, in some way, counter to the inculcation of patriotism and by extension, nation building. The president developed this argument further in the context of the fast-approaching 20th anniversary of our first democratic election.
Contrasting himself with and contradicting one of his deputy ministers, Jeremy Cronin, Zuma said he was, however, optimistic that the opposition would eventually join the “mainstream”. Without defining what this “mainstream” might be, the president continued: “there should emerge a common thread of patriotism that binds us. We should put South Africa first”.
Was there, I wondered, any political party or leader who would put South Africa second or third?
Undaunted, Zuma ploughed on: “All of us have a patriotic duty and responsibility to build and promote our country. Rhetoric and grandstanding is a luxury that the country cannot afford.”
Here we see a relapse into the modus operandi of former President Thabo Mbeki, which began when he was deputy president: the conflation of the state with the ANC’s Marxist-inspired “national democratic revolution”. Taken to its logical conclusion, competing political parties and centres of power, in Zuma’s schema, are not expressions of the diverse political views of the South African electorate, they are roadblocks to the ANC’s vision of the republic.
But constitutional democracy, as with any form of consolidated democracy, acknowledges that the mandated role of the opposition, to monitor the executive and if necessary, provide the alternative, is as much patriotic duty as it is the work of the elected government of the day.
The president’s analysis also challenged the foundation of South African pluralism: the inherent hope of the “rainbow nation” that citizens and communities of various backgrounds and with varying world views, histories and values, can live together in tolerance and with empathy. The promise of this hope, in turn, leads to authentic reconciliation, a process personified by Nelson Mandela: the ability to see one another through each other’s eyes.
This process, however, does not mean that everyone signs up to the same political and policy roadmap to get to the same destination. If it did, we might as well do away with political parties and the government itself and replace them with a plethora of technocrats embedded in, to use a modern metaphor, the same global positioning system.
Not for the first time, the president endorsed majoritarianism over the constitutional push for inclusiveness and the plurality of ideas. This is predicated upon an inadequate understanding of the liberal democratic character of the Constitution, the same liberal-democratic Constitution that was nurtured by the visionary non-racialism of the ANC’s own founders and later, by the consensual work of the constitutional assembly itself.
Our national consensus was not obtained by unanimity or by qualified majority voting. It was reached, and can be maintained only through compromise and the inclusion of many viewpoints.
In a slightly comical, if unintended, moment in Parliament, the president went straight from his comments that wrongly attacked the opposition for rhetoric and grandstanding to rightly describing the national development plan as the “a perfect vehicle for united action”. In a single stroke, Zuma upended his argument. If the opposition was a bunch of unpatriotic and stroppy obstructionists, why did they contribute to the crafting of the plan and then support its adoption in Parliament? He directly contradicted his previous statement by acknowledging that the plan enjoyed support across South Africa’s political spectrum.
The genius of the plan is not, as the president inferred, that the opposition slavishly signed up to an ANC vision. It is rather that it is the product of widespread consultation with actors across South African public and political life. As his star wanes, it is perhaps to Trevor Manuel’s credit that this process, for a brief interlude, recaptured something of the national spirit of magnanimity that marked the Mandela years. And, I fear, it is for the same reason — sidelining Manuel — that the court of President Zuma may not allow the plan to be brought to life. Ironically, given his assault on the opposition, the Democratic Alliance was able to point to practical examples of how the plan had already been implemented in the Western Cape provincial government before it was formally adopted.
Zuma craftily rounded off his attack on the opposition by repeating Mandela’s unforgettable inauguration words: “Never, never and never again shall this land experience the oppression of one by another.” The tragic paradox was that, in trying to stigmatise the opposition as being unpatriotic, he risks scorching the Mandela legacy of inclusiveness and reconciliation.
Lindiwe Mazibuko, MP, is the parliamentary leader of the DA