Candid Comment: Zuma must reclaim his showercap

IF there is one thing I think as a nation we should cherish from Western democracies it is what is referred to as “institutional memory” and continuity of professional tenure when governments change.


Wikipedia defines institutional memory as “a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences and know-how held by a group of people. As it transcends the individual, it requires the ongoing transmission of these memories between members of this group.”

Both Zimbabwe and South Africa tried to follow this tradition with the coming of majority rule in 1980 and 1994 respectively. Change took the gradual form of affirmative action in Zimbabwe or black economic empowerment in SA. Even then, there was resistance because Africans, being less educated, would debase standards in both governance and education, it was argued.

We bucked the trend. Even as the world anticipated a chaotic if not bloody transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, for a long time whites remained in high office, from cabinet ministers and the public service to the security establishment. I recall Dennis Norman, General Peter Walls, Ken Flower and David Smith. It was called national reconciliation.

For months after Prime Minister Robert Mugabe’s inauguration, Ian Smith, the last Rhodesian prime minister, remained an advisor at Zimbabwe House even as Mugabe plotted to destroy his erstwhile comrade-in-arms and power rival Joshua Nkomo.

Smith said he was stunned by Mugabe’s “reasonableness and sense of fair play”. To him, Mugabe was “a model of reason and fairness”.

Some, like Flower in the CIO, later resigned of their own volition when their positions were no longer tenable. South Africa followed a more or less similar pattern with the coming of majority rule in 1994.

It is however the post-colonial transition which is proving more problematic for both Zimbabwe and South Africa. There is a tendency towards spitefulness in the succession struggle between Zanu PF and the MDC in Zimbabwe and from Thabo Mbeki to Jacob Zuma in the ANC in South Africa.

This is endorsed by the same democracies where a gradual transition makes for orderliness and predictability from one administration to the next — from Conservatives to Labour or Republicans to Democrats in the UK and US respectively.

In Zimbabwe’s case, the quest for an overhaul of the old system is at the root of the “outstanding issues” in the global political agreement. Permanent secretaries and ambassadors have to be shared equitably. Professional qualifications are not a factor.

One explanation is the spoils mentallity in which the victorious party seeks to reward itself out of state resources. Witness how new councillors’ first task in office was to demand cellphones and residential stands.  

The other is the ideological war where “backbenchers” or friends of the winning party want a clean break with the detested previous administration. In Zimbabwe, this has been worsened by political violence in recent elections.

In South Africa the desire for a clean slate has caused terrible confusion and contradictions. Despite consensus in the dominant media about former president Thabo Mbeki as the country’s political bete noire, they can’t place his successor President Jacob Zuma, an enigma they have created for themselves.

But how can Zuma be understood by people who convince themselves that he was “plucked from obscurity” by Mbeki when anyone who can read knows Zuma was a senior official in the ANC security establishment during the liberation struggle and almost single-handedly neutralised Inkatha Freedom Party and won KwaZulu-Natal for the ANC at the time of Nelson Mandela! How can someone who spent 10 years on Robben Island with Mbeki and other senior ANC leaders be called obscure?

Well, the aim is to show how detestable Mbeki is and obliterate his legacy. Barney Mthombothi of the Financial Mail aptly sums up this view in the latest issue: “For the ANC, Mbeki or his record is as good as dead. It’s as if he was never their leader for an entire decade. It’s a period,” he says, “I am sure, that they would expunge from the history books, if they could.”

He admits all have failed to read Zuma’s “mind”. They had hoped for a clue from his cabinet selection, which turned out to be “neither fish nor fowl”.

The explanation is found in Mthombothi’s exhortation to Zuma a few weeks earlier that he could drop everybody from the Mbeki cabinet except Finance minister Trevor Manuel. South African business wants Zuma to embrace the capitalist system which Mbeki pursued.

Their dilemma is that nothing Mbeki ever did should be seen in a positive light. Yet they are happy with Manuel’s successor Pravin Gordhan and Manuel as head of the National Planning Commission, both products of Mbeki’s when the economy experienced 10 years of growth.

There is fear that left to himself Zuma will follow his heart and pursue Leftist policies of the ANC’s alliance partners, Cosatu and the SA Communist Party. There is a sense of relief when Zuma says there won’t be change of policy from Mbeki’s yet he must be “expunged” from ANC history.

How can the ANC which has governed since 1994 expunge itself from history just because it’s got a new leadership? How can the ANC expunge Mbeki without Zuma veering further to the dreaded Left? The real test of Zuma’s leadership will be his ability to carry out the ANC’s election pledges to help the poor whom Mbeki forgot.

The starting point is for him to reclaim his “showercap” which will be used to blackmail him against pro-poor policies.

Mandela dared the apartheid gallows over his head at Rivonia in 1964. Will Msholozi betray Mandela’s ideals for fear of a scarecrow showercap over his head?

BY JORAM NYATHI