Ditching the battle to worship personalities

One of the criticisms made about the current political developments in the country has been that, instead of dealing with the issues, there is a tendency to focus on personalities.

One of the criticisms made about the current political developments in the country has been that, instead of dealing with the issues, there is a tendency to focus on personalities.

This, the argument goes, has led to political parties and the public taking their eyes "off the ball".

Egyptian filmmaker Jihan El-Tahri believes that this phenomenon has been, and is, playing itself out even more so within the ruling ANC "where people have forgotten what the battle is all about and are obsessing with personalities".

El-Tahri uses the relationship between former president Thabo Mbeki and his successor Jacob Zuma to drive home her point.

She says there is no policy difference between Zuma and Mbeki and yet people have reacted to the leadership contest between the two in a manner that has pushed the country "to cliff edge".

Ironically, in her film Beyond the Rainbow, El-Tahri uses the relationship between Mbeki and Zuma to tell the story of the ANC's transition from liberation movement to ruling party.

In the film she also interviews other key ANC leaders such as Siphiwe Nyanda, Mac Maharaj, Kader Asmal, Pallo Jordan, Kgalema Motlanthe, Mosiuoa Lekota, Ronnie Kasrils and Blade Nzimande to tell her story.

"There are two ways of telling such a story. You could take a camera and go into the townships and talk to ordinary people. But my perspective is that you talk to that group of people who make decisions that affect the entire country," explains El-Tahir.

In the film, Zuma humorously relates how the Swaziland police almost handed Mbeki and himself over to the notorious apartheid security police. The Swaziland police had raided their ANC safe house and found a Russian-made pistol and some ammunition.

After spending some weeks together in prison, Zuma and Mbeki were taken to Matsapa Airport to be flown out to Botswana. But on arrival there, they realised the plane they were about to board belonged to South African Airways.

Only the intervention of some Swazi foreign affairs officials saved the young men from death at the hands of the apartheid death squads. They were taken back to prison.

In her story, El-Tahri tries to capture the spirit of camaraderie and comradeship between the two and how that relationship later soured when Mbeki eventually fired Zuma - after the Schabir Shaik trial. The film is very current about developments within the ANC. Three days after it was completed, Mbeki was recalled.

El-Tahri has some very unkind words for both Zuma and Mbeki because of the manner in which they handled the leadership contest and the effect their actions had on the ANC leadership.

For her, Mbeki was like "a figure of a Greek tragedy - where your heart is broken for his downfall, but you can understand why it happened".

The tragedy is how Mbeki "whose leadership qualities as the Renaissance man has left the filmmaker in awe of his brains" eventually turned many people in the ANC against him.

His undoings included the "I-know-it-all attitude that drove many people away from him".

El-Tahri also thinks that Mbeki was deceptive by not coming out clearly that he did not believe that Zuma was presidential material. Instead, there were tactics like the alleged "coup plot" in which Mathews Phosa, Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale were fingered as individuals who wanted to depose Mbeki.

The "coup plot" put pressure on Zuma to come out and say he had no presidential ambitions.

"This is because the coup plot put anyone who was believed to have such ambitions under a cloud of suspicion."

Her fears about Zuma is that the manner in which he was put in power by "an anti-Mbeki coalition" could eventually undermine his capacity to lead the party and eventually the country.

She thinks the handling of Mbeki's recall is a case in point where Zuma was obviously against Mbeki's early departure but "went with the collective".

El-Tahri asks: "Who is the collective? Do you want this country to be led by an unknown collective?"

Her message eventually is that South Africa is on the right track in terms of policies. But there are danger signals where "people who fought for forty years, giving their lives, are today scared of losing an office."

El-Tahri believes the film is also an opportunity for the ruling party to introspect "because as the last liberation movement in this important epoch of anti-colonialism, the ANC can come up with solutions to the challenges that liberation forces in Africa to ruling parties" have faced in their transition from liberation movements.