Mzansi Afrika

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Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Perceptions

Politics is all about perceptions. It doesn’t matter what the truth is, it’s about what people perceive the truth to be – thus according to the masses, Zuma is innocent until proven guilty

Morgan Tsvangirai, head of Zimbabwe’s MDC is being quoted in today’s papers as saying that President Thabo Mbeki is "coming on board" and he appreciates that there are no longer any excuses for him to remain lethargic on helping to resolve the Zimbabwe crisis. Tsvangirai, who held an hour-and-a-half meeting with Mbeki in Pretoria on Sunday, said his meeting with the president had not been "more of the same".

Somehow, I don’t think so Morgan. It’s all about perceptions. And whose perceptions is Mbeki wanting to influence ahead of the G8 summit in Scotland? If you watch when Mbeki makes statements about getting involved in Zimbabwe to “solve” or influence the Mugabe problem, it’s usually just before he’s about to meet with some G8 or western bigwig. Just before Bush’s visit to South Africa a few years ago, Mbeki was making bold statements about facilitating a meeting between Zanu-PF and the MDC – ultimately nothing substantial transpired. Who was Mbeki wanting to appease when he fired Jacob Zuma? He was sending a message to the West that he would not tolerate corruption, yet I suspect that there are others close to Mbeki who may be corrupt but he does nothing. It’s all one giant political chess game.

With all the corruption going around, Mbeki chose to institute a long process that would lead to the downfall of his greatest political rival, Jacob Zuma. This is not to say that Zuma isn’t corrupt, but Mbeki managed to find Zuma’s Achilles heel – a fondness for lavish living beyond his means and he successfully exploited this behind the scenes to try and bring Zuma down. In the meantime, Mbeki has miscalculated – perhaps in the process of centralizing his power he overestimated his own power within the movement. We know that Mbeki has never been a man of the people, as William Gumede points out in his book “The Battle for the Soul of the ANC” Mbeki is one of the few ANC struggle leaders who never had a freedom song written about him, and in South Africa this says a lot. Mbeki it seems has completely lost touch with the masses, a big mistake in a movement with a proud history of mass based participation. Mbeki may have thought he was bigger than the ANC, in reality the movement is bigger than him. He took a political gamble, he thought he could control the ANC in terms of his concentrated power at the top - in the presidency, and in the ANC’s National Working Committee and the National Executive Committee, but he failed to predict the power of the masses and thereby ended up having to face an internal rebellion from the ANC provinces and the branches.

I spent last Thursday at the ANC National General Council, and before the announcements came through about Zuma’s reinstatement to ANC structures, I had the chance to wander around and speak to branch members and just ask them questions to try and get a sense of what ordinary people were feeling. I spoke to two people from the Soweto branch and they warned me that there was going to be a rebellion and that Mbeki was in for a big surprise, they also said that they were going to be pressing for a speedy trial, that they would be disappointed if Zuma were found guilty, but wanted the due course of the law to be followed and they would support the outcome either way (I might cynically add, depending on if they can discredit the judge afterwards). It’s all about perceptions. I was told that Zuma is one of us, he comes from a rural background, he dances and sings with us, he listens to us, and he understands us, and he understands the ANC. Mbeki, on the other hand, I was told, thinks he is up in the sky and better than all of us, he doesn’t know what’s going on in the ANC, he has forgotten about the importance of the ordinary people to the ANC, is virtually a foreigner, he lived most of his life overseas and he doesn’t understand what’s going on in South Africa.

This would seem to be true of Mbeki in a certain sense. In pandering to the Western agenda, Mbeki has indeed lost touch with his domestic constituency. He may need to do some serious backtracking, and if his personality will allow it all, he needs to start diluting that urbane and sophisticated image that he has cultivated to impress the west, when he is home, and start going around to kiss babies and dance at local community rallies. He needs to reach out to his people.

In spite of all the division within the ANC, being at the meeting, I did not get the impression that this will be the straw that breaks the camels back of the alliance. The ANC is bigger than Mbeki, people truly love the movement, it is their political and historical home and they will keep the movement together. This is what various delegates told me, but it is also what I sensed, in the excitement, in the singing and the dancing, and the atmosphere. If anything, the ANC will spit Mbeki out, the current divisions seem to be seen from within the movement as a difficult obstacle in the process of maturing from a liberation movement to a political party. There may be a severe problem, but it will be overcome.

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