Zuma's detractors are not necessarily all racists

There is a scenario that often plays itself out in South Africa. A black person who is unable to argue against another person, probably white, decides to use the race card as her defence. There is another scenario that plays itself out around election times, not only in South Africa, but throughout the world, where politicians, in their desire to increase their support base, reverts to group identity in an attempt to turn their supporters against others who might be perceived to be different.

I was thinking about these two scenarios this week, a week in which we saw some significant shifts in power relations in South Africa and the re-emergence of what we used to call “people’s power” in the 1980s when we were trying to bring apartheid to its knees.

Last Friday’s countrywide protests against President Jacob Zuma was dwarfed in Tshwane by the march on Wednesday organised by opposition parties, with especially the Economic Freedom Fighters supporters, in their customary red uniforms, coming out in their thousands.

Zuma’s camp, because that is what government has effectively become in many ways, tried to counter the damage of the biggest protests seen in our democracy, by using the memorial for Chris Hani, the SACP leader who was killed 24 years ago, and a 75th birthday party in Soweto on Wednesday, where Zuma could speak comfortably, without having to fear being interrupted by rowdy protesters.

But his supporters saw nothing wrong with doing some disruption of their own last Sunday when members of the ANC Youth League turned a memorial for the late ANC stalwart Ahmed Kathrada in Durban into a rowdy affair where speakers who appear to be critical of the President were drowned out. This was despite a court ordering the Youth League not to be disruptive.

But when your principal, the President, continuously ignores court orders and makes spurious remarks about the judiciary, then that almost gives the ANC Youth League and his other supporters the right to ignore the law, or even worse, break it at will.

It is clear to me, as a concerned South African, that the President and his supporters in the ANC have chosen to go down the path of dividing South Africans. Why else would they blame everything on “white monopoly capital” and “white racists”. It is irresponsible for the President to try to create a situation where all white people are perceived as racist.

The President’s men and women seemed to have calculated that, if they consolidate their base of ANC supporters in KwaZulu-Natal, that would be enough to carry them through the ANC’s elective conference. But winning at the ANC’s elective conference in December does not mean that the ANC will win the general election in 2019.

If the protests of the past week are anything to go by, the ANC should be very afraid of losing their majority in the national government and some provinces come 2019. I don’t know if the ANC is ready to be in opposition, so soon after our supposed liberation.

In a situation like this, the ANC would do well to ask what went wrong and why, and not to strengthen the walls of their bunkers, but to engage with society on ways of getting out of the mess in which we find ourselves.

How did we go from a very strong and credit-worthy economy to junk status? (Yes, I know it is only two out of three ratings agencies, but it is serious enough already.)

How did we get to a point where President Nelson Mandela used to love interacting with the public, especially children and often impromptu, to one where Parliament has to be barricaded because the President is in the House?

One of the most telling things about the President’s expensive birthday celebrations in the middle of Soweto – at Kliptown where the Freedom Charter was adopted in 1995 – was the presence of his security detail on stage and below the stage. It is clear that he feels that he needs protection even when he is surrounded by people who sing his praises.

I am a stupidly loyal person at the best of times and I have constantly given the President the benefit of the doubt, hoping that eventually he will do the right thing. It is clear that he has no intention of doing this.

The sad thing is that he is dragging the ANC, once Africa’s proudest liberation movement, down with him.

It is sad that there are such serious divisions in our society at the moment, but there is also hope. Hope lies in the fact that the citizens of South Africa – and not only whites – are increasingly deciding that they hold their future in their own hands.

Democracy means much more than just voting every couple of years. Democracy means engaging with all the issues in society, and playing an active part in seeking its resolution.

The President needs to listen to and try to understand the anger of the people. If he did, he would probably understand the reasons for him to step down.

I really and sincerely want to support our President, but cannot do so at the moment. If that makes me a racist, then so be it.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 15 April 2017)