Zuma tribalises South Africa

Wednesday, 5 April 2017
Richard Dowden

During the 1960s and 1970s, the exiled African National Congress was a sad organisation. At anti-apartheid meetings, its representatives gave dreary speeches heavily accented with Marxist revolutionary language. They always moved in groups and, as a journalist, I found it difficult to get to anyone who spoke in plain English or could tell you anything of interest about the state of “The Struggle”. Spokespersons always had a minder with them and stuck closely to the revolutionary script written for them in the Soviet Union. Russia and the eastern bloc communist countries supported and armed the ANC, and Moscow insisted on Soviet-style language and discipline in every statement. 

The only time I managed to get sensible and honest answers from the ANC was an interview with Oliver Tambo, one of Africa’s most dignified and engaging leaders. He admitted weaknesses and mistakes in the movement and did not claim that victory would come soon or easily. He understood the Cold War politics of the time which prevented Britain from supporting a Moscow-backed movement like the ANC.

I also noticed that the ANC did not distinguish black from white among its membership. No one mentioned ethnic group or tribe. ANC members were all equal. I never knew – and never asked – who was Zulu or Xhosa. Only when I visited South Africa in 1979 did I realise that ethnicity within the black community was as important as anywhere on the continent.

So it has been shocking to hear President Jacob Zuma’s people call for another Zulu president to follow him because the Xhosa had two presidents – Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Neither of them ever – as far as I know – favoured the Xhosa over any other ethnic group. But Zuma seems to assume a zero sum tribal struggle at the heart of the nation. Are the ghosts of post independent African countries that slid into tribal wars beginning to haunt South Africa today?  

Zuma now wants his first wife, also Zulu and now divorced from him, to succeed him. Presumably he wants her protection. She was one of those stuck in exile in London in the 1970s. Hardworking and formal, she always on message.  As head of the African Union she was quietly friendly but also always remained tightly on message. She carefully avoided reforming the AU or making it more relevant.

In 2013, she gave a dull and poorly delivered RAS Annual Lecture. A good, hard working but uninspiring woman, she is not the person to lead South Africa in 2018. While she may not be tainted by her former husband’s corruption and hunger for power, she does not have the imagination or leadership qualities to rule South Africa.

If it is to be successful, South Africa needs to continue transforming it from an Apartheid society to an all-inclusive society. That means more integration and better education. Both need more investment. Zuma’s tribal politics will drive that investment elsewhere. 

Richard Dowden is director of RAS.