Stuck to the politics of ancestry

HOWZIT COM: Thabo Mbeki sharing a joke with Julius Malema during the ANC's centenery celebrations in Bloemfontein January 2012. Photo: SIMPHIWE NKWALI
HOWZIT COM: Thabo Mbeki sharing a joke with Julius Malema during the ANC's centenery celebrations in Bloemfontein January 2012. Photo: SIMPHIWE NKWALI

"You!" they yelled at him. Had you been in that unforgettable marquee at the historic Turfloop campus in Limpopo, you would have bet the timing and the response itself was thoroughly rehearsed over a period. In that crowd was Julius Malema.

The rowdy Polokwane delegates were responding to then ANC president Thabo Mbeki, who was reading out his political report, urging them to discuss an important issue: the cause(s) of the divisions in the party.

After he had been humiliated, the conference had ended, his foot soldiers (remember Mluleki George?) politically decapitated, Mbeki called a press conference in Pretoria.

At that conference, on the lawns of the Union Building, this journalist asked Mbeki if he had had a discussion with delegates about the accusation that he had caused divisions.

He said he hadn't had the opportunity to.

So bad was he in the eyes of those who triumphed at Turfloop, he was forced to quit as the country's president.

Now, how possible is it that this divisive figure - at least according to those shouting delegates - has suddenly recovered his mojo within the ruling party. It all looks surreal.

The idea that Mbeki should return to active domestic politics, so far propounded by Malema, is frankly illogical.

He had said before that he would not want to rule from the grave. Why drag him from there?

But we must understand the political factors that have given rise to this.

The ANC has stubbornly stuck to the politics of ancestry. Its leaders cannot see the future through the lens of its present leader without deferring to the dead and or retired. They always want to reach out to the grave for inspiration.

Each time the leaders of the party get stung, usually by self-inflicted dilemmas, their response is to look backward instead of forward. It happened under Mbeki, but intensified as the party reached its apogee of its leadership crisis when Jacob Zuma took over the reins.

When Mbeki axed Zuma as deputy president, effectively launching him as a wounded presidential candidate, the presidential hopeful resorted to invoking the spirits of fallen ANC heroes.

In his protest rhetoric and struggle songs, Zuma kept telling his audience across the country about what Oliver Tambo, known for keeping the party alive while semi-paralysed by apartheid's draconian laws, had stood for.

Not what he himself stood for in terms of South Africa's contemporary challenges.

Zuma was struggling to stand on his own feet. He needed support, the kind that couldn't be bought with a Schabir Shaik "loan", otherwise known as a bribe by some counter-revolutionary judges who need to be transformed.

Zuma then styled himself as the rightful heir to what those late leaders had stood for during their time.

The sub-text was that Mbeki had gone astray, had sacrificed the unity of the ANC. And this is what the delegates shouted at Mbeki about, accusing him of causing divisions. In the true nature of ancestor worship, some of them are now prepared to forget the accusation they had made.

There is also a quiet search for new ideas by certain structures within the party, particularly in Gauteng.

Having given Zuma a chance to govern - and there remains a possibility that he could once again triumph in Mangaung if he stands for re-election - and having witnessed his many blunders, some members are searching for an alternative leader.

In what is currently seen as a leadership lacuna, they seem willing to trade Zuma for anyone who comes across as his antithesis.

Talk about history repeating itself in ironical terms.

Some speak privately about how much they miss Mbeki's writings. The traffic to the ANC website has

since declined. While "some among us" - to borrow from Mbeki's much-abused line - might feel relieved about the disappearance of arguably the most acerbic pen yet from a head of state, many have been left thoroughly bored.

The brain that used to think for them, which they readily mimicked, had disappeared. So big is the void.

Some members speak of how he elevated the party and the country in international affairs, transcending Jan Smuts. They complain about how the "African Agenda" was flushed away by the G8 soon after Mbeki had left the global stage.

And some long for the economic boom over which he presided and which lifted many from poverty, got many rich and extended the social network to the unfortunate millions.

In the process they also forget Mbeki's mistakes - and that like all leaders, he was not infallible. Well, the retort to this is always "he was an enigma when we elected him". The point being that Zuma was taken to the Union Building "with all his known corruption", to paraphrase Malema - and that didn't matter back then.

But the political nostalgia over Mbeki is symptomatic of yearning for something. It's about searching for what could possibly be better in relative terms for now and in the future; the better that is battling to emerge, and might not.

When some ANC members and leaders can't see any good in the present and they know it's unlikely to emerge in the near future, they resort to looking backward. This is hardly the way to move forward.

Praying to the ancestors can't serve as a muti for the sick patient, as David Makhura, the Gauteng provincial secretary, aptly described the party. (He omitted to say whether it was the deadly Ebola or a curable flu virus).

Malema, who feels like a jilted lover as Shaik does, is using Zuma's less than virtuous attributes - a lack of scholarly depth - to opportunistically bring Mbeki back into the fray under the guise that the ANC needs "that intellectual depth".

This begs the questions: why is the ANC lacking and unable to attract intellectual depth? Doesn't it like it that way?

Malema is playing a dangerous game of wanting to sneak back to life a "dead snake" (Zuma's phrase) and "genocidal president" (Buti Manamela's) a "dictator" (Malema's).

Has Mbeki been cleansed of all these dangerous characteristics?

Remembering these utterances, one wonders what would have happened if the ANC's newly found zeal to discipline its noisy elements had applied when these phrases were uttered.

Maybe Mbeki would not have vanished to political banishment from which he is now being surreptitiously recalled. Maybe the unwritten gag on quoting his speeches would not have been imposed.