South Africa needs a new liberator

Mmusi Maimane

Johannesburg - Experience across the continent shows that first we must be liberated, and then we must be liberated from the liberators. Eight years after becoming ANC president, Jacob Zuma now presides over an ANC showing all the classic signs of a party in the last phase of its life as a liberation movement.

A party promoting anything but freedom for the people of South Africa. While the ANC is the party of the past, the DA is now the party of the future, the new champion of an inclusive, non-racial democracy.

In the ANC’s liberation trajectory, we can discern three distinct phases. The first began in 1912, with its inception as a movement fighting for political freedom for all South Africans, and ended on April 27 1994, when it won South Africa’s first democratic election.

Thus began the middle phase, led by successive presidents Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, in which the party sought to consolidate its electoral support. In this phase, the ANC had the social licence to take the risks and bitter pills necessary to put the country onto a growth trajectory that could have pulled the masses out of poverty.

Yet it was a phase where the cracks resulting from a lack of leadership that prioritised freedom, fairness and opportunity emerged.

In their own ways, these leaders tried to do their best for South Africa, but they failed to take full advantage of a strong mandate and made some severe errors, the legacy of which live on today.

It is increasingly clear that this second phase came to an abrupt end in May 2009, when Zuma became president. Ironically, he promised to be the “people’s president”, the Everyman, close to the people and their needs.

Instead, he has become the Big Man, separating his party from the masses it claims to represent. Zuma’s ANC is a liberation movement that has reached its end stage: a party focused on protecting a small group of insiders at the expense of the broader population who have become outsiders.

In his book, The State of Africa, Martin Meredith records the post-independence experience of liberation movements throughout Africa, detailing how and why hope turned to despair. The common pattern is that once in power, liberation movements abandon their ideals and become parties of patronage and Big Man rule.

We saw that in Nkrumah’s Ghana, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Banda’s Malawi, Kaunda’s Zambia and in many other African countries. And we’re seeing it now under the presidency of Zuma.

A central challenge is that liberation leaders have debts to pay. People want compensation for their years of struggle and sacrifice. It seems fair to offer reward by way of appointment to political position.

Competency, experience and knowledge are forced to take a back seat, leading to a decline in administrative competence.

Contracts and licences are also allocated on the basis of loyalty rather than merit, contributing to a decline in the state’s functioning.

When Zuma came to power after a bitter battle with his rival Mbeki, he had huge debts to pay to his supporters, and moved swiftly to appoint them to key positions.

Despite his promise to be the people’s leader, he and his ever-shifting team have been unable to resist the temptations that come with power. They opted to turn power into personal profit rather than public good.

As Meredith shows, a liberation movement in decline becomes increasingly isolated from its original social base. Leaders spend more time focusing on personal and party enrichment than on governing the country.

They lose touch with the lived experience of common people and become remote from the realities of the crises that their country faces.

As their legitimate claim to be liberators erodes, so they shore up support by other means, which contributes to the downward spiral.

Power tends to be increasingly concentrated in one person and that Big Man tends to reshuffle his cabinet frequently in order to prevent any minister from becoming a threat. Corruption becomes endemic and leaders pay no more than lip service to its threats.

And the media increasingly becomes the voice of government propaganda. Having lost its freedom narrative, the party attempts to mobilise support on the basis of race and history.

Having lost its popular support as a liberator, it shores up support by eroding the independence of institutions that check and balance power, overriding the Constitution and human rights in support of its narrow goals.

As mass support wanes, the party rules through a growing patronage network that radiates out from the Big Man like a web from a spider, permeating even the furthest municipalities.

The government becomes the largest employer, dispensing jobs and benefits in return for loyalty.

Foreign embassies and state-owned enterprises such as airlines extend opportunities for prestige and patronage, the glue that holds it all together.

Meanwhile, liberation leaders and their families accumulate ever greater personal riches while the poor focus on daily survival. The police are used to suppress any protests precipitated by these predatory politics while leaders laugh them off, knowing they are above the law and beyond accountability.

They hold the levers keeping them in office and tend to neglect higher education, the birthplace of dissent, resistance, rebellion.

Opposition voices are stifled or muted. They become disillusioned because they compete on an uneven playing field for financial support and a voice in the media.

Rising unemployment and gross inequality ensue. A leadership vacuum develops in a climate of crisis and desperation. Ultra-populism rises to fill it. Do you feel like you’ve watched this movie before?

Nkandla; the Marikana massacre; the blocking of cellphone signals during the last State of the Nation Address; Guptagate – the use of the Waterkloof air force base to land Gupta wedding guests; Omar al-Bashir’s illegal spiriting out of the country via the same Waterkloof base; Zuma’s uncaring stupor during the #FeesMustFall protests.

Also the emergence of the ultra-populist EFF; Zuma’s many cabinet reshuffles to date; a vast network of foreign missions second in size only to that of the US; the ANC’s over-played race card; load-shedding and the threat of water-shedding.

These are all key points on our current road map. The next objective of Zuma may be the capturing of the Electoral Commission and the Demarcation Board, after which it could be a lot more difficult for people to exercise their democratic right to choose their leaders.

I was a part of the ANC when it cherished the ideals of a non-racial democracy. But now the DA is the only party which mobilises on the basis of respect for the constitution, non-racialism and market-led growth.

The ANC and the EFF are populist parties, mobilising and dividing on the basis of race. The DA alone stands for one nation with one future.

It is only when we have been liberated from our liberators that South Africa will become a mature democracy.

Mmusi Maimane is leader of the DA.


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