/ 19 May 2024

FROM THE ARCHIVES | Elections 2009: Towards a moral vision

Political Parties Make Final Push Ahead Of National Elections
A large campaign poster for the ruling ANC, covers the side of a building April 18, 2009 in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

There have been moments when our leaders have faced challenges that have called on them to lead with moral vision. The essence of Nelson Mandela’s leadership was moral authority and a keen consciousness of the potential for violence and destructiveness in our society. In a country with a history of violent anti-apartheid protests, systematic abuses of power by the apartheid government and state-sanctioned violence against those perceived to be the enemies of the state, Mandela recognised his role in building a culture of tolerance.

In contrast, under Jacob Zuma’s leadership, political intolerance in our society seems to have deepened. In speeches delivered to crowds outside his court appearances, in statements by leaders of the ANC alliance partners and in the behaviour of Zuma’s disciples, the message conveyed under Zuma’s leadership has been one of intolerance and a spirit of protest that has permeated many sectors of civil society, rupturing the sense of responsible citizenship among some ANC members entrusted with authority in institutions. 

At a time when we need leaders who will be moral role models for the next generation of leaders, one wonders what the future holds when our president’s strength of popularity is not matched by the strength of his reputation for moral stature. How will he speak with authority on matters of corruption?

Zuma’s failure to address the important issue of the corruption charges against him in a thoughtful manner — despite the National Prosecuting Authority’s revelations of political meddling — show a lack of awareness of the lessons conveyed by his behaviour. It is our right as citizens to know and for Zuma to address this issue. The dark cloud of unanswered corruption charges hanging over his head has been redefined as a figment of the imagination of his enemies. The message conveyed to Zuma’s supporters, it seems, is that his enemies are out to get him — again.

It is this “enemy” language aimed at silencing questions voiced by concerned citizens that concerns me.

At the same time, the past represents the hard-fought years of the anti-apartheid revolution. What we have witnessed in the overwhelming display of support for Zuma seems to shift the focus away from the real work of strengthening our democracy and restoring dignity to the majority of our people. It cast the battle to bring Zuma to the presidency as the new revolution and anybody who disagrees with the stance as “counter-revolutionary”. 

How quickly we backslide. Under the apartheid government the voice of dissent was silenced. Courageous people, among them Archbishop Tutu, were unstoppable. Times change; it is now 2009. A black government led by people who fought fearlessly against apartheid is in power. Yet somehow things stay the same. Today Tutu is demonised and portrayed as part of a “lynch mob” unleased to destroy Zuma. Rather, thus, the threats come from the ANC and its alliance partners, spreading fear to silence citizens’ right to question those in positions of leadership.

The ANC, and the future president of our country, would do well to shift gears and to focus attention on uniting the people of our country. Fifteen years after the birth of freedom and democracy, this is an extraordinary moment to change history and to avoid South Africa deteriorating into a statistic of the African continent, where corruption reigns under post-colonial governments.

This is an edited version of author Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s article in the Mail & Guardian, 24 to 29 April 2009