Comment – Saga Down South: What Political Culture Are We Building?

Image: Flickr, GovernmentZa
Image: Flickr, GovernmentZa

In June, a court found that South Africa's deputy president, Jacob Zuma, had engaged in a "generally corrupt relationship" with his financial advisor, a briefcase entrepreneur found guilty of corruption and fraud who had given millions of rands to Zuma and won a slice of a controversial arms deal without any technical capacity.

Although Zuma himself was not on trial, he was fired as deputy president within days of the court decision, sparking a bitter battle for the soul of the ruling African National Congress. Many delegates to the party’s national general council meeting cheered Zuma, derided President Thabo Mbeki and overturned his decision to withdraw Zuma from party activities until charges against him are settled in court.

He remains the deputy president of the party and head of its powerful appointments committee. Should he be found not guilty, he seems the overwhelming favourite to assume the presidency of the ANC in 2007 and of the country in 2009.

Although portrayed as a simple struggle between pro- and anti-corruption factions, the Zuma affair is a complex tale at many levels, offering important lessons for Africa about the importance of the unwritten systems and culture of politics.

Zuma and many of his supporters argue that he is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law and political leaders should not be held to a higher standard than ordinary citizens. Unions and the South African Communist Party – that have long called for Mbeki to focus less on corporate interests and emphasise state spending and job creation – rallied strongly to Zuma’s banner as a way to project their fight against Mbeki.

For others, supporting Zuma is a fight about leadership style. Mbeki, who fired Zuma, is seen as distant and unsympathetic to the concerns of the poor and beholden to the interests of the powerful. This is, of course, self-serving on Zuma’s part, but it is a theme that resonates with the grassroots members who feel abandoned by the ANC leadership.

Damaging denialism

Under Mbeki, the ANC has developed a culture of centralised unilateralism in which the presidential power is unencumbered. The role of the party as the link between society and governmental authority has been severely diminished. Lacking any feedback from civil society, the government has instead closed itself behind a wall of denial over many crucial questions.

Confronted with a disastrous spread of HIV/AIDS and calls for treatment, government argued that the risk was exaggerated, that causes of the disease were unclear, that its critics sought to portray blacks in a bad light. When riots erupted over corruption and lack of housing, Mbeki’s government suggested the conflict was the work of a ‘third force’ of political agitators rather than a legitimate complaint.

Faced with this denialism, the ANC’s own constituencies have taken to the streets and sometimes the courts to demand inclusion. HIV/AIDS activists at the Treatment Action Campaign incurred the wrath of government for taking the government to court over its refusal to provide AIDS drugs. Unions and civil society organisations have staged mass protests over economic development.

But the Zuma saga is the most tragic illustration of the consequences of denialism. It began when Mbeki decided to purchase some $5 billion in weapons, despite growing cries for delivery of housing, education and services. Evidence suggested that corruption played a part in the choice of contractors. Instead of transparently investigating the charges, the ANC sought to deny them and stifle criticism. Mbeki dismissed critics as ‘fishers of corrupt men,’ who seemed determined to find corruption. If the organisation had indeed listened to the critics of the arms deal it would probably not find itself where it is right now.

My professor at MIT, the late Donald A. Schon, once made a useful distinction between what he called single-loop learning and double-loop learning. Single-loop learning consists of easy solutions such as, in this case, calls for Zuma to be charged and prosecuted. Of course, he must be charged if there is enough evidence of corruption.

However, double-loop learning would urge us to look beyond the person of Zuma to the structuring of opportunities in our society, and how individuals in search of instant treasures align themselves to powerful politicians. This is not a problem limited to government but pervades the whole political culture of our society. Indeed, it is a global problem that Africa ignores at its peril.

In his report to the ANC, Secretary-General Kgalema Motlanthe noted that corruption problems, factional fighting, lack of service delivery and ‘moral degeneration linked to the accumulation of and control over resources’ affected the party at all levels. ‘Whether it be councillors, mayors, municipal managers, [provincial level] ministers, directors-general or cabinet ministers, none of us can avoid the severe challenge posed to the movement. Both new and seasoned members are equally prone and vulnerable to the tempting prospects that come with public office.’

Merit means nothing in such a culture. The children of so-and-so will eternally be at an advantage over the children of so-and-so. That is how the elective oligarchy transmutes and extends itself into a social oligarchy. The masses, on the other hand, will in their desperation rally behind any demagogue that comes around. That is how a baser form of nationalism develops.

The African continent has seen too many ethnic wars fired by the structuring of opportunities according to ethnic allegiances. Ethnic groups will kill and maim to capture the state, and will kill and maim to keep themselves in power to promote the interests of their own.

Ethnic politics do not seem to be a major factor in South African politics as yet. The people benefiting from patronage and other forms of rent-seeking such as black economic empowerment come from all of South Africa’s ethnic groups. However, even if ethnicity does not pose an immediate threat, there are rumblings that the Xhosa group dominates the political leadership of the country and the ANC. This is what is often referred to as the Xhosa-nostra.

Even if this does not bear itself out in the facts – Mbeki is the only Xhosa among the national office bearers of the ANC – perceptions matter a great deal in politics. It is vitally important that a non-Nguni person or a non-Xhosa person is elected to lead the ANC.

That notwithstanding, the dominant explanation of the current debacle is political culture. The appointment of a new deputy president is tinkering at the edges of a much larger problem – the existence of an elective and social oligarchy that is increasingly seen as distant from the masses, with President Mbeki at its apex.

The ANC needs a new life breathed into it by a unifying leader who is likely to bring a psychological revolution within the organisation, rebuild the connection between the oligarchy and the masses, open up the political decision-making processes, separate the link between political connections and life chances, and thus prevent the current travesty from happening again.

In making such a decision the ANC could do well to take to heart the words of Harvard University leadership guru, Abe Zaleznick: ‘The task of a leader is identification. The job of a leader is to get people to identify with him or her so that the leader becomes a presence in their minds and in their thinking. Leaders need to be so aware of themselves and so comfortable with the power they possess that they’re willing to let people use them as objects of identification – as totems, almost. This creates enormous cohesion in the organisation.’ I cannot imagine anything more important for the ANC, and by extension the South African society.