Ek lees in die DA se verkiesingsadvertensie dat Thabo Mbeki, nes Nelson Mandela, eintlik ‘n wonderlike president en leier was. Thabo Mbeki!? So wragtag! Dan sê die DA só; dan sê die DA weer sús. Wie weet wát die DA nou eintlik sê. O ja! Die DA sê die ANC is vrot. Of nie – perdalkies sal ons in die 2019-veldtog hoor dat JZ eintlik ‘n great president was! Wie weet!? As jy werklik totentaal deur die watsenaam is… Stem Woensdag DA – hulle is óók deur die watsenaam, deur die kak.
For updates, new stories, and additional comment, click here to follow @DrewanBaird on twitter
Drewan Baird. Oudtshoorn. 2 April 2014. 03h30. Gareth van Onselen wrote this piece way back at the start of the current election campaign in February. It was published in Business Day
The DA and Mbeki: Zille rewrites history
Feb 24, 2014 | Gareth van Onselen
Gareth van Onselen: Is Zille saying Zuma is so bad that we would have been better off with Thabo Mbeki?
DELIVERING the keynote address at the Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) 2014 election manifesto launch in Polokwane on Sunday, party leader Helen Zille devoted a significant part of her speech to uncritically praising former president Thabo Mbeki and the two administrations he oversaw. When Jacob Zuma was elected the African National Congress (ANC) president in 2007 — at the same venue — Zille argued that that was when things started to go wrong.
No doubt the party’s launch was held in Polokwane to emphasise this point. But, in order to make the multimillion-rand gimmick work, Zille had to re-engineer history. She duly obliged.
Mmusi Maimane, the party’s premier candidate in Gauteng, has already employed this tactic on a number of occasions. As a backdrop to the suggestion life was better under Mbeki, Maimane has used the fact that he was once an Mbekiite himself, who supported and admired the man as well as the Mbeki-led ANC from 1997 to 2007. Maimane joined the DA in 2011.
Zille, however, does not have Maimane’s excuse of once being drawn to Mbeki and his politics; quite the opposite, in fact: she has been violently critical of him, his performance, policies and effect on the country. None of that, however, was evident in her speech.
Maimane has never explained his political transition from nationalist sympathiser to liberal zealot. If that transition ever actually took place, how and why it did is not a discussion the DA wants to have. And the reason it does not want to have it is contained in Zille’s speech: an idealised Mbeki is a helpful political tool for the party, whatever the DA’s actual historical position on his performance as the country’s head of state. And so, once again, it is willing to sacrifice principle in order to paint the right kind of pragmatic picture. Only this time it is being mendacious in doing so.
Zille said on Sunday: “Under presidents Mandela and Mbeki, South Africa made progress. They had a good story to tell.”
She continued: “Basic services like water, electricity, sanitation and housing were rolled out. The economy started to grow. Unemployment dropped and many people’s standard of living rose. Measures to fix the injustices of the past were introduced.
“In those days, most people believed that South Africa was going in the right direction. But then the tide turned.”
“Things changed, right here in Polokwane, in December 2007. At its elective conference that year, the ANC elected a new leadership. President Mbeki was recalled from office months later. And then, charges against Jacob Zuma on 783 counts of corruption were dropped.
“That was the moment when a great political movement lost its sense of direction. It was hijacked by leaders who care more about themselves than the people they are meant to serve.
“The ANC of today is not Nelson Mandela’s ANC. They are two different parties, which just happen to have the same name. “A better life for all” has become “a better life for some”. The good story ended in 2007.”
This is a highly disingenuous portrait of the man, and its omissions are dishonest. Zille certainly never believed herself that the country under Mbeki was “going in the right direction”. When Mbeki was president, Zille made much hay out of publicly demonstrating that Mbeki’s story was anything but good one — we were told it was a horror story of profound proportions. But that narrative has now been re-imagined as a fairytale. Lo and behold, the wicked wizard was, in fact, the hero and the DA seems to miss him a great deal, as should you all.
That is before one gets into the realm of political ideology. Mbeki was a racial nationalist — an archetype, in fact, for that kind of thinking. His policies were the very antithesis of liberal thought. That is a subject for another discussion, but it is significant that any mention of how he arrived at the policies he did, whatever their effect on the country, was exorcised completely from the speech. Rally speeches do not lend themselves to such an analysis; nevertheless, there was not even a nod in the direction of political principle.
So what of Mbeki’s much vaunted success? Was his story really a good one? Here are some of Zille’s more significant positions on the man.
In February 2008, she argued that it was clear “President Mbeki is a lame duck. He has failed to lead, failed to inspire and failed to offer hope. He has made it clear his government will not accept responsibility for the very real crisis facing our country.”
Within that more general crisis were a number of other, smaller crises for which, Zille argued, Mbeki was to blame.
When lights literally went out, as Eskom collapsed under the weight of years of neglect, Zille would say the following about Mbeki, in May 2008: “He is ultimately responsible for the power crisis that threatens to bring our economy to its knees”.
“He has consistently denied the gravity of national crises such as HIV/AIDS and crime; and he has allowed President Robert Mugabe to repeatedly steal elections in Zimbabwe,” she said.
Ultimately, these and other fundamental and serious failings on Mbeki’s part, would force Zille to arrive at the conclusion that he should be fired: “The ANC and its allies,” she argued, “might be undecided on whether Mbeki should step down, but for the DA, the correct course of action is obvious: Mbeki must go and he must go now.”
Fast forward six years and we are now told Mbeki had a “good story to tell”. Really? The DA wanted him fired for inflicting a national crisis on the country. “The economy started to grow”? Is this the same the man who was “ultimately responsible” for an electricity meltdown that threatened to “bring our economy to its knees”? That is some kind of growth.
People then believed South Africa was “going in the right direction”, we were told on the weekend. Yet Zille had argued Mbeki “failed to lead, failed to inspire and failed to offer hope”. Are we talking about the same person? Or the same people?
Unless what Zille is saying is that Zuma is so bad we should accept that we would be better off with the catastrophic failure that was Mbeki — it might have been catastrophic, but at least it was not cataclysmic. If that is the case, mediocrity has a firm grip around Zille’s throat and is squeezing hard because those choked splutterings thus constitute a relative defence of failure, and that signals the death of idealism.
Those are just some choice snippets from Zille’s public record on Mbeki, which is as extensive as it is damning. And it is before one gets to the DA in opposition, from 1999 to 2009, when the party fashioned an entire political agenda around opposing Mbeki. All of that, Zille seems to be saying, is forgotten.
The DA has become very good of late at airbrushing history, painting large swashes of its own legacy in a contemporary blue mixed more with expediency than authenticity. But it can clearly whitewash, too. Indeed, it would appear a mistake to place any historical fact in the DA’s hands for safekeeping these days. Who knows what you will find when you return to reclaim it? It is practising a kind of political alchemy, whereby even radioactive poison can be transformed into rhetorical gold.
But here is the real clincher: Zuma, Zille argued, was the product of Mbeki. Never mind his many and varied failings in government, he delivered Zuma unto South Africa. “If the president does not use this occasion (the state of the nation address) to halt the march of the ANC’s national democratic revolution”, she said in February 2008, “he will be forever seen as the man who laid the groundwork for Zuma to take it to its logical conclusion”. She said: “South Africa will never forgive him”.
Guess what? Mbeki did not stop the national democratic revolution, Zuma arrived and Zille seems to have forgiven him anyway. Not just forgiven him but also asked South Africans to remember all the good he once did.
One of Zille’s favourite phrases is “history will be the judge”. She uses it often when in a bind or stuck in a polarised debate. It is her way of saying, “In the bigger scheme of things, I believe the DA’s position on this issue will stand tall and all this other noise will dissipate.” No doubt what she really wants to say is how Winston Churchill put it: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” Whichever, it matters not when it comes to Mbeki. Much of that history is already written and the good news is, Zille has helped write a lot of it.
At the weekend she said: “Things changed, right here in Polokwane, in December 2007… That was the moment when a great political movement lost its sense of direction… The good story ended in 2007.”
But this is a new analysis. The old one was markedly different. Here is an extract from a 2009 speech Zille gave on the ANC’s cadre deployment policy — conceptualised and formalised by Mbeki:
“How did it get stuck? To answer that question, we need to go back to 1997. It was in this year, at the ANC’s national conference in Mafikeng, that the ANC’s national working committee (NWC) was given a mandate to deploy ANC cadres to all state institutions, including the judiciary, the public service, local government administration, statutory bodies, parastatals, the security forces, the central bank and the public broadcaster.”
She said then: “Cadre deployment (or cronyism) is the primary cause of the ‘failed state syndrome’ so tragically prevalent on our continent. Its ultimate outcome is Zimbabwe.” That reference to despotic tyrannies was not unique for Zille either. In 2005, she said of Mbeki’s attempts to make the judiciary accountable to the ANC: “This is the hallmark of autocratic rule and banana republics.”
She concluded her 2009 speech by saying, “History will show that the root cause of this constitutional crisis was cadre deployment.”
Well, that is until the DA gets holds of history and tries to rebrand it to fit an expedient contemporary purpose. The ANC’s crisis and the consequences for the country were suddenly and conveniently time-warped forward one decade this weekend. No longer was 1997 the moment critique; now it was 2007. Ten years gone with the stroke of a pen.
As Zille says, history will indeed be the judge — and it isn’t going to look favourably upon her duplicity.
Zille said in April 2007 that Mbeki’s biggest weakness was the way “he’s reinforced this race obsession in South Africa, which we have to grow out of if we want to be a mature democracy”. But wait, she would up the ante further still: “Mbeki’s capacity for denial is his greatest failing,” she would say in April 2008, and it “will define his legacy”.
“It is an even greater failing than the other hallmark of his presidency, the growth of racial nationalism…”
And she had much to say about Mbeki that is indistinguishable from her criticisms of Zuma. In giving Mbeki a mark of four out of 10 in the DA’s 2007 cabinet report card, she said: “He openly used state institutions to either protect his allies or attack his opponents in his struggle to keep charge of the ANC.” That is a stock-standard DA criticism of Zuma. Likewise, Zille has repeatedly argued Mbeki’s role in the arms deal — which he refused to investigate — rendered him morally compromised. The DA makes the same argument about Zuma’s endless resistance to seeing out in court those many charges brought against him.
The list of these examples goes on and on.
In defending its line, the DA will no doubt say, yes, Mbeki did falter, but he also achieved much. It will have to be pushed to concede even that though. Not a single reservation was expressed in Zille’s Sunday speech; never mind the suggestion this was a man whose failures far outweighed his limited successes. These omissions give the game away. It’s like summarising Mugabe by saying only that he did much to transform land ownership in Zimbabwe.
Why is the DA so willing to manipulate and misrepresent facts with such bravado?
It has everything to do with polling, which is telling the party three things about those black voters favourable to the DA’s message: they don’t like Jacob Zuma; they do not want the ANC denigrated; and they do not want to feel like they are conceding anything by switching allegiances to the DA.
Thus, Mbeki is the ideal counterfoil to Zuma.
By favourably juxtaposing Mbeki with Zuma, they can attack Zuma the individual, as opposed to the ANC as an organisation. At the same time, they can suggest they understand why black voters were loyal to the ANC of the past. “We understand why you voted ANC,” they are saying, “but Zuma does not represent the ANC of old, and we relate to your dilemma.”
The problem is, Mbeki’s tenure was a monumental failure. At least that is how the DA’s own public record describes it.
One has to have sympathy for the DA’s purpose. It is exceedingly difficult for the party, especially in an environment where the ANC constantly paints it as recalcitrant and racist, to make potential black voters feel safe. But principle does play some role in politics and where you draw the line in the sand says much about your core values. That line has just been redrawn 10 years further down the line. With it, Zille has delegitimised much of the DA’s history. When you are willing to do that, when nothing is fixed or permanent — even history itself — then pragmatism has gone too far.
In a fictional universe, should Julius Malema come to win the presidency, will Zille then yearn after the days of Zuma? What would be the difference? If you have adopted a policy of embracing relative failure, only the extent of the most recent crisis will constrain your approach.
Many in the DA must feel conflicted about this, although you’d be hard pressed to tell. There is a vast number of DA public representatives who have built their political reputation on opposing Mbeki, his policies on HIV/AIDS, Zimbabwe, cadre deployment and race. At the time, one would presume, they would have waxed lyrical about the principles at stake.
These were men and women of conviction, speaking out in difficult circumstances. Now they silently watch on like unthinking drones while their own contribution to this key period in South Africa’s history is belittled and explained away.
“The polls tell us this is what we must say,” they will respond. And, if the polls also tell you to set your house on fire? Would you like some matches? Here is a more interesting question for history to answer: when exactly did the DA suspend its moral conscience?
The irony of all of this is that, of those black voters the DA’s Mbeki infatuation is aimed at, you can be sure many have equally strong feelings about black economic empowerment (BEE) and affirmative action. Those two government policies go hand in glove with Mbeki. Although the DA advocates its own version, it opposes the government’s and that’s the message most have received. Few love Mbeki and disapprove of BEE.
So, really, the DA is sending a confused messaged to them anyway — we love the architect, only we hate the building.
All of this historical manipulation will be forgiven if the DA wins big on May 7. Then it will all be seen as worthwhile. If it doesn’t — and Zille has already downgraded the party’s 30% target — the knives will be out. One way or the other, the DA centre continues to melt down from a solid core into some kind of pliable putty, and every second day the party seems to have a new mold for it to fit into. That is a bad habit not easily unlearnt, whatever the election outcome.
For updates, new stories, and additional comment,
click here to follow @DrewanBaird on twitter