How Zuma has brought South Africa’s democracy and Mandela’s “miracle” from honour to shame!
THE LAST WORD | By Andrew M. Mwenda
Last week I was in South Africa and listened to the disaster bad leadership can inflict on a country. President Jacob Zuma and his confederates have indulged in forms of theft and brigandage that rival Mobutu Sese Seko’s former Zaire in the competition for who should be the archetype of a predatory state. Yet in spite of (and precisely because of) his overt and crass thieving, Zuma holds fast on the presidency of both the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and South Africa.
Zuma’s opponents cannot master votes necessary to push through a motion of no confidence because they misunderstand how politics works. Only ten years ago, the ANC found it easy to “recall” then sitting president – the cerebral and clean Thabo Mbeki – in a split second decision. Why? Society is built on human nature, not human ideals: Zuma has the right political instincts about the emotions of the masses and money for elites.
The American philosopher-historian, Will Durant, once said that there have only been three successful forms of government man has ever known. The first is monarchy/aristocracy i.e. rule by birth. This has been the most successful since the evolution of states. The second is theocracy i.e. rule by religious clerics. The third is democracy i.e. rule by money. Zuma’s survival only goes to prove Durant’s cynical view of democracy.
There is a naïve view of democracy promoted by Western powers and supported by Africa’s “intellectual” elites. This view tends to obsess with procedures and rituals of democracy even when they don’t perform any democratic function. Yet in poor countries democracy tends to eliminate public-spirited individuals from politics and instead promotes the most cunning and deceitful ones. We have witnessed this in Uganda since 1996 but it is most exemplified in India, as I will show below.
People like Zuma understand Africa’s politics better than the educated middleclass with a pretentious global intellectualism. For all his crass corruption, Zuma has actually held his base – the urban poor and rural masses. He is like America’s Donald Trump, a brilliant demagogue who exploits the fears and anxieties of the white dispossessed masses. For Trump it is the Mexican immigrants and Muslims. For Zuma it is “white monopoly capital.” These distract the masses from real to imaginary enemies.
There are huge income inequalities in both the USA and South Africa. Trump comes from a wealthy background but he identifies with poor whites largely because of race. Zuma comes from a poor background but has used power to amass wealth. Both need bogeymen to rally the masses and it is working. Zuma has never had a formal education. He therefore has better political instincts about what works in a context of poverty that many middleclass African elites lack. He is openly polygamous, and doesn’t seem bothered by it as many of his educated colleagues in Africa are (and therefore hide their second and third wives and mistresses).
Zuma knows, perhaps intuitively, that many voters do not distinguish the public finances of the state of South Africa from the private finances of its president. Thus when people like him steal from the public purse, they lavish their supporters with money knowing that poorly educated voters approve of this behaviour. This kind of Robin Hood politics was common in today’s rich countries when they were poor. It is also common in a democracy India where hundreds of men facing serious criminal charges have enjoyed long and successful careers in politics – both at the national and state level. Today, criminals are so deeply embedded in India’s political life that democracy and electoral competition tends to strengthen, rather than lessen, their grip on power.