SA received an almost perfect Valentine’s Day gift

Lest we forget, Valentine’s Day has a bloody history. It did not start out as a day on which many people throughout the world celebrate love.
Instead, depending on who you believe, it either began with the beheading of a Roman priest called Saint Valentine in the third century, or an Italian bishop who was apparently executed for trying to convert the emperor to Christianity. These are among many stories which try to explain the origins of Valentine’s Day.

In short, Valentine’s Day has nothing to do with love, an association which annually makes billions internationally for retailers who sell love-related products. Because of its history, we should not be surprised that Valentine’s Day 2018 will go down in history as one of the bloodiest days in South African politics in recent years.

It was the day on which we saw the President of South Africa being forced to resign - the second time this has happened in democratic South Africa.

But unlike Thabo Mbeki 10 years ago, who resigned almost immediately after being recalled by the ANC, Jacob Zuma tried desperately to hold on to the most senior political office in the country.

He even abused the offices of the public broadcaster a few hours before his resignation.

This was indeed one of the most interesting weeks in South African politics, and we have had many of those.

But as we become used to saying and writing “former President Zuma” and “President Cyril Ramaphosa”, it is important to reflect on how we got to this situation and how to avoid it happening again.

The instability caused by the impasse over the presidency of the country impacted on all South Africans. Because of the vast gap - about 18 months - between the ANC’s elective conference and the country’s elections, it is likely that we will have a similar situation when Ramaphosa comes to the end of his term as ANC president.

This could be in five years or a maximum of 10 years.

Even if Ramaphosa becomes the best president of democratic South Africa, that will not be enough to stop his party turning on him when the time comes.

Up until about a week ago, Zuma still believed that one of the reasons he should not be recalled was that “the people still love me”.

Whichever faction wins the day at the ANC’s elective conference will want to put their preferred leader in place.

This is, of course, if the ANC is still the governing party in five or 10 years, something that began to look increasingly unlikely in the last few years of Zuma’s reign.

But the unceremonious end to Zuma’s presidency was brought about not because of the “two centres of power” argument. It came because the ANC realised that, with him in the prominent position he occupied, there was a strong chance of the opposition taking more than the Western Cape in the elections scheduled for next year.

They just did not know how to tell him what he’d done wrong because, if you think about this properly, all the ANC’s leaders share some culpability for allowing Zuma to destroy the once-proud liberation movement, much of the security sector and parts of the state-owned entities and the financial and economic sectors in South Africa.

After all, they voted for him to become ANC president in December 2007 and the country’s president in May 2009, despite his having been involved in a rape trial and with many charges of corruption hanging over him. They voted for him to continue as ANC president five years later and for him to have a second term as the country’s president.

Zuma’s presidency has once again illustrated the dangers of populism.

We need to choose political leaders for better reasons than their popularity, which is probably too much to ask. But leaders need to have the necessary skills to deal with the complex issues in a country that was ravaged under colonialism and apartheid. It does not deserve also to be ravaged in democracy.

The country and the world are living in hope that things will improve under President Ramaphosa. Why would it not, because surely anything will be better than what we have been subjected to over the past few years?

But the biggest lesson we should learn from the Zuma years is that we should never leave the destiny of our country in the hands of political leaders. There is a crucial role to be played in our democracy by civil society and especially the media. Without the pressure applied by civil society and the numerous reports of corruption in the media, the ANC might never have been emboldened to take the step they took this week. Valentine’s Day 2018 will be remembered by most people not for the gifts of love they received, but for the political head that rolled as the day came to an end. It was almost a perfect Valentine’s gift to the nation. Let’s hope that the ANC realises they need to treat the nation with love and respect, and not only on one day a year.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 17 February 2018)