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Mangaung Unpacked

It was a fierce and emotional battle over who would lead Africa’s biggest economy into the future. There were heated exchanges and cries of corruption.

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The re-election of Jacob Zuma to lead the governing party of the most powerful economy on the African continent, South Africa, was never a case of ‘if’, instead it was a case of by how big a margin he would beat his reluctant challenger, Kgalema Motlanthe. What was a puzzling paradox for many opinion makers though, was how Zuma got more than 70% of the vote when the African National Congress (ANC) gathered for its elective conference in Mangaung on December 16-20.

Were those 4,500 voting delegates so dumb and ignorant? Could they have been bought or lulled to ignore the stuff that filled newspaper columns, radio and television programs and social networks? How on earth did they miss the groundswell of indignation towards their supposedly highly unpopular and bungling president? In which South Africa did those delegates live, that they could not see what the political analysts, commentators, journalists and opposition politicians saw?

Part of the problem is the fact that the ANC still follows an archaic system of electing its leaders. No ANC leader gets to openly contest, so that they could tell why they believe they deserve the top position. As a result, s/he who controls the levers of power during party election time gets to have an upper hand and, depending on how skillful or cunning they may or may not be, the ANC leadership race is always for them to lose. This is only a small part of the problem. Those chosen become the country’s leaders by virtue of the party’s domination of the political landscape. The bigger problem has everything to do with what has become of the over 51 million people that constitute the population of South Africa.

Greed, self-centeredness and dishonesty have become only some of the defining characteristics of South Africans as wealth accumulation, getting plum positions or ensuring they keep their jobs becomes more important than anything else. In the process they’ve become meek and timid, in many ways a defeated people, blaming everything and everybody other than themselves for crises they find ourselves in. They tend to let their attitudes and emotions, prejudices and prescriptions, stand in the way of appreciating the best that there is.

Take the media and political analysts’ reaction to the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC deputy president. When it became apparent that the billionaire businessman was to become the ANC’s number two, pages of newspapers and magazines, as well as hours of airtime were dedicated to full-blown ‘analysis’ of what he is going to do.

While there’s nothing wrong with someone wishing to communicate their wishes on how the ANC can best utilize Ramaphosa; the most interesting aspect of ‘Cyrilmania’ has been how glibly many have come to pronounce it, without any due regard to both the history of his re-emergence and the inner workings of the ANC.

Business and the elite media’s warmth to Ramaphosa seems to have everything to do with the fact that he represents that acceptable, affable face of the ANC—the one that fits the stereotypical image of a suave, sophisticated, articulate leader who will not embarrass. He is the welcome opposite to the polygamist country bumpkin they see in Zuma.

Almost without questioning, business and rest of the elite seem to think that finally, there’ll be a clever black at ANC headquarters where the party’s top six officials meet every Monday. Ramaphosa, the thinking seems to go, will tell Zuma what no one has hitherto had the guts to tell the 70-year-old struggle veteran about such things as inspiring investor confidence or catering to the sophisticated voter.

The truth is that not only is Ramaphosa nothing more than a benefactor of Zuma’s generosity, he is also a crowning success of his deft strategy. What is forgotten is that Zuma preferred to keep Motlanthe and that it was only after Motlanthe spurned the effort, choosing to stand against Zuma instead, that Ramaphosa came into the picture.

But simply because Ramaphosa was second choice does not mean that he cannot achieve the things that many now think he will be best-placed to accomplish. That’s not to say that Zuma is now suddenly in a mood, through Ramaphosa, to pacify constituencies he considers disdainful and unreservedly hostile. Correctly in some instances, incorrectly in others, Zuma’s comments often suggest a firm belief that most media are hell bent to destroy or undermine him.

What’s habitually forgotten is that only one man has a final say in the ANC and that’s its president. Given the way the ANC operates, the more firmly that person is in charge, as Zuma is now, the more people like Ramaphosa will have little option but to tow the line. The only time Ramaphosa will get reprieve, is if Zuma decides to anoint him. That’s if Zuma won’t seek a third term as ANC president.

In interviews with both men, Zuma insisted that he “definitely won’t seek a third term”. He did not wait for me to point out that after his election in 2007, he said he would serve only one term. Ramaphosa would not be drawn into whether he was keen on the top position. For now its “outside of my wish and imagination,” he told me. When I asked what he thought about the attitude of business towards the ANC, he replied: “The business community has not stepped up to the plate. It has held back”.

In five years’ time Ramaphosa will have the option to challenge Zuma, in the same way Zuma challenged Mbeki in 2007 and won, and Motlanthe challenged Zuma and lost.

While post-apartheid ANC leaders contested positions, often fiercely; they hardly represented fundamentally distinct visions of the ANC and the country.

One is tempted to conclude that ‘Cyrilmania’ is a clumsy, if not hopelessly inadequate effort, largely by those who disapprove of Zuma’s rule. As history has proven, the problem with that practice is that it almost always guarantees that such a move won’t be taken seriously, for ANC leaders don’t take kindly to being told by the media.

Another problem with ‘the government must do this, must do that’ tendency of South Africans is that it also serves to hide the inefficiencies of others who have the power and resources that can move the nation forward, like the country’s business and worker leadership.

Sick and tired, South Africa’s stubborn and resilient workers showed up the country’s lack of, not only political, but also business and labor leadership. Though rudderless, the workers successfully organized a massive wave of sporadic, unprotected, often violent and suicidal strikes. Although the workers lost wages and many lose jobs in the aftermath, they made their point. The ultimate loser, though, is the country’s economy.

Has organized business and labor taken the responsibility they always demand of government? No.

Hopefully South Africans will learn—and that includes the Ramaphosa fan club, which holds influential positions in the media and business—that it takes a lot more to exert real influence in their political economy and to build a nation that will be the envy of the continent. Creating heroes and villains is not the answer but a sure way to failure and disappointment.

Tempting as it might be for everyone to engage in the sport of exposing every wrong about him and blaming Zuma for all of South Africa’s ills, he is definitely not the root cause and the delegates to the ANC conference knew that. Blameless, yes, but he is at best a symbol of what is manifestly wrong with South Africans as a whole.

If there’s a lesson that history should have taught South Africans in the past 18 years of democracy, it should be that their nation stands to gain a lot more if they put themselves to the very test they put their leaders to. Everybody—including business, civil society, labor, opposition politicians, journalists, commentators and analysts—should wake up to the reality that they need to use their energies and the platforms they each have, a little more wisely and creatively. There’s nothing wrong with engaging, a lot more rigorously, but also truthfully.

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