Zuma cult a threat to ANC
IT WAS in the aftermath of Thabo Mbeki's ouster from the Presidency that he penned a letter to his long-time friend and comrade- turned-nemesis Jacob Zuma.
The stern, somewhat angry letter had been prompted by former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema's announcement that the recently deposed Mbeki would be instructed to campaign for the ANC in the 2009 election.
Still smarting from his humiliating defeat at the Polokwane conference a year earlier and his unceremonious "recall" from the state presidency, Mbeki was livid at what he saw as disrespect for ANC traditions, culture and protocol.
He then raised an issue he should have raised loudly during his own tenure, as it had become worrisome even then. His warning was one the ANC should have listened to, as it would come back to bite the party at a later stage.
The issue was the rise of the cult of personality.
"I would be interested to know your view of any instance in our movement during which it fell victim to the noxious phenomenon of the personality cult, as a result of which it ceased to think, content to act in the manner of the 'anointed personality', such as the late Kim Il-Sung determined to the people of North Korea!," Mbeki asked the man who was poised to follow him into to the Union Buildings.
Listing a galaxy of about 20 stalwarts whose names every ANC member swears by, he reminded Zuma that "none of these heroes or heroines ever sought adulation in any manner that would turn them into cult figures".
He added that, as long term comrades, the notion of the liberation movement being enslaved in the cult of the individual "would have been alien" to both of them when they were growing up in the ANC.
Referring to the "Kill for Zuma" slogans prevalent at the time, he said he found it strange that while people had attached the cult of personality tag to himself (Mbeki), the very same people had no gumption about publicly declaring a determination "to kill to defend your own cause", the personal interests of "the personality", Jacob Zuma.
Mbeki was making it clear to Zuma that he was enjoying his superstardom far too much and that this was unbecoming of an ANC leader.
What Mbeki was pointing to was a phenomenon that the ANC and the country have to contend with as we move towards and beyond the governing party's conference in Mangaung in December.
The two years leading up to Polokwane were years in which this cult of personality truly set in. Determined to build Zuma into the kind of force that would unseat Mbeki, his supporters turned him into a rock star/prophet/messiah.
He had his personal website promoting his virtues as an individual and defending his personal honour.
His supporters appropriated a famous revolutionary song and made it his own signature tune. Legions followed him wherever he went as though he were an Old Testament prophet.
When he appeared in court, leaders jostled for space in the public gallery.
The gospel according to his supporters was that this was the man who would deliver South Africa's second liberation.
If the masses felt a bit short-changed by the democratic order thus far, it was because Mbeki had wielded too much power as deputy president and president of the republic.
He had used this power to foist on the country policies that entrenched poverty and inequality, so the narrative went. He had stifled debate and not tolerated alternate viewpoints.
The new prophet would change all this. His would be a people-centred government. He would be a listening president.
The unions would have a friend in the highest office. Economic policy would shift to the left and capital would quake in its boots. Imperialists would be put in their place as the new man would not be so taken with neo-liberal economics.
He would also be at home a lot more and not be like the jet-setting around the world Mbeki.
Sections of business were also taken by this wave of Zuma worshipping. Having felt shut out of the policy-making matrix and having been chastised by Mbeki once too often, big business felt it would be better off with this listening man.
But, history records, everyone was set to experience massive disappointment as the prophet had neither the intention nor the ability to deliver on their hopes.
As is almost always the case in these situations, the personalities around whom the cult is based are totally self-focused.
They are usually narcissists who sell a big dream, just to ensure a gullible population propels them to the top.
Once there they look after themselves. It is quite telling that those who deserve such adulation the most are the ones who shun it and are prepared to share the power and authority that comes with it wisely. Think Nelson Mandela. Think Walter Sisulu. Think that generation.
Despite Mbeki's warnings this phenomenon is becoming deeply ingrained in the culture of the governing party.
It is not only Zuma who is the rock star to his followers. The likes of Ace Magashule, David Mabuza, Cassel Mathale and other big men are treated and behave in this manner in their provincial fiefdoms.
Malema and his band of gluttonous youth league leaders also feasted on this phenomenon.
In the past two weeks we have seen it rearing its very ugly head as the mandarins of Luthuli House unleashed their swords, cocked their guns and ordered their troops into the battlefield in defence of one man's penis.
The ANC has to find a way of managing the personality cult phenomenon.
It must manage it in such a way that leadership contests bring out the best in people but at the same do not create little gods on earth.