Beginning or the end?
Five years ago, I made a plea to ANC delegates at Polokwane to choose Jacob Zuma over Thabo Mbeki.
At that time our people were dying unnecessary deaths under Mbeki’s autocratic leadership.
In the latest edition of the prestigious medical journal Lancet, Bongani Mayosi, Joy E Lawn, Debbie Bradshaw, Ashley van Niekerk, Salim S Abdool Karim and Hoosen Coovadia write about “the unscientific health policies and disastrous mistakes of the Thabo Mbeki era (1999-2008) made in respect to the HIV epidemic”.
And so Kgalema Motlanthe was right the other day to praise Zuma for his leadership on HIV/Aids, which has led to life expectancy rising from 49 under Mbeki to 60 under Zuma.
But what Zuma has given with one hand, he has taken away with the other.
If HIV/Aids was Mbeki’s Achilles heel, corruption has become synonymous with Zuma’s administration.
Our public reputation is in tatters both here and internationally because of all the reports of personal and financial impropriety surrounding the head of state.
The daily reports of flows of money from questionable sources to the president and his relatives sap the energy of the people, create cynicism among young people and lead to a general loss of confidence by the rest of the world.
At the rate the ANC government is going, it’s a matter of time before another downgrade by the world’s ratings agencies is issued – that is a certainty in the next seven years of a Zuma presidency.
In a functioning democracy, all these foibles would have been enough to disqualify any president from a further stay in office.
So what prevents members of the ruling party from seeing this impending disaster and acting to forestall it?
The answer may lie in the paradox of freedom and democracy that was identified by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin in his most famous essay, Two Concepts of Liberty.
Berlin wrote that “freedom . . . is not, at any rate, logically connected to democracy” and that “there is no necessary connection between individual liberty and democratic rule”.
Translated into our context, this can be taken to mean that fighting for freedom did not automatically turn us into democrats.
At the heart of democracy is the requirement of respecting certain types of institutions, such as the judiciary.
The attacks by former freedom fighters on the judiciary, on the media and on universities betray a political leadership that understands the concept of freedom as keeping the institutions of constitutional democracy at bay.
This assault on democratic institutions started under Mbeki. But those of us who supported Zuma in his battle against Mbeki thought he would reverse the decline. Instead, Zuma institutionalised the decline further with his attacks on the judiciary, on the media and on “clever blacks”.
His construction of a boondoggle of a house for R248 million in one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the land exacerbates the decline. I predict his palace will prove to be the most important monument to institutional failure in this country.
In time, it may even prove to be a reminder of when institutionalised wrongdoing set in – when the worst instincts of former freedom fighters prevailed over the best instincts of democratic accountability and sensibility.
It may help our government officials to be reminded of the example of the great Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, a leader truly loved by his people.
He continued to live in the same modest home he had owned before becoming president of Tanzania.
Nyerere combined a lack of ostentatiousness in both his personal demeanour and public conduct.
Kgalema Motlanthe comes across as having that sense of probity, although like any other leader he could still turn out to be just as bad as his predecessors.
But that is not reason enough not to test his mettle in practice.
Too many dictators have blackmailed their people by telling them they better stick with the devil they know.
That is how the African continent has found itself saddled with corrupt potentates for decades, who built themselves palatial compounds as huge as Zuma’s at the expense of taxpayers.
And I would, of course, be among the first to call for Motlanthe’s ouster should he behave like his predecessors.
If the ANC chooses Zuma over Motlanthe – that is to say, the institutionalisation of wrong over right – then the duty will fall on the opposition parties
to save us from certain ruin in 2014.
We would not be the first country to jettison a liberation movement because it would have failed to align its historical values with the challenge of building a democratic society based on solid, unsullied institutions.
Unwittingly, Zuma may have helped bring about the end of South African exceptionalism.
Like many other African countries, the ruling party would have taken us over the brink but in the process brought about a new political alignment.
The irony is this week the ANC is going back to the place of its birth for what could be its burial.
Don’t all of us do something similar when preparing to die?