Sunday, September 21, 2008

Dispatch: Man Down

Wow. I feel confused, a bit saddened and deeply questioning. I write all of that with a caveat. I am a foreigner in South Africa, I am active in so many ways, but in many others I can just be an observer. But having lived here for quite a while, being the talkative and questioning observer that I am, I have learned a great deal about politics. Several months ago I had a conversation with former Umkhonto we Sizwe members (armed wing of the ANC) who said they don’t like Jacob Zuma, the President of the ANC and now presumptive President of the country, and don’t want to vote for him, but then also say if they don’t vote, what did they spend years in the struggle fighting for? Last week I was in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of KwaZulu Natal where Zuma is from and has a huge following, where his trial at the Magistrate’s Court was held, where a judge threw out the corruption charges on procedural grounds. There, the man who took me out to a few high schools for screenings explained why he believes Zuma is a great man and will make a great President, why Zuma’s rape trial was a plot, and gave a cultural explanation as to why Zuma told a court that taking a shower after sex would prevent him from contracting HIV. I don’t judge, I listen. In that way, you get to hear everything.

But in the last 48 hours, things in South Africa have been turned upside down. The headlines today are dramatic: OUT! How Mbeki was toppled, Thabo Mbeki: Judgment Day, Mbeki: A Dream Destroyed, Thabo’s Shame, The Anatomy of a ‘Coup’ What follows is a mix of “It’s not a good day for the country,” “Opposition parties condemn ANC move,” “Wish come true for new ANC leadership,” You can guess from this that Thabo Mbeki has been forced to resign as President of South Africa. In a vote last week by the ANC National Executive Committee, they officially voted to ask him to step down. The ANC Secretary General is quoted saying that, “[Mbeki] did not display any shock or any depression, he welcomed the news and agreed that he is going to participate in the process and the formalities.” Who welcomes that kind of news? Perhaps he was stealing himself. Tension between Mbeki and Zuma has been building for years, got stronger when Zuma was elected President of the ANC in January and Mbeki may have known that this was inevitable once the court last week threw out corruption charges against Zuma on procedural grounds and then implied that Mbeki’s government was meddling in the case.

Is Mbeki really that bad a president that he should be kicked out like this? That the democratic process, which would have led to elections and a Zuma victory in March, had to be usurped? Well, as my friend Louise reminds me, many people don’t like Mbeki – he is aloof, an intellectual, not the “man of the people” that Zuma is. His positions on AIDS were egregious and devastating – rejecting the benefits of ARVs, implying that garlic and lemons were a cure, that it was a plot against Africa by the pharmaceutical industry. And his friendship with Mugabe, a friendship from struggle days, clouded his ability to act swiftly and condemn Mugabe, proclaim crisis in the country, after the elections in Zimbabwe earlier this year.

And yet I sigh. In fact, the line that made me the saddest was not hearing that he would not be President of the country, but was a line in the New York Times yesterday – that the ANC may ask Mbeki to leave the party – lose his membership to a party he has belonged to since he was 14, for 52 years. This to a man whose father Govan was tried and imprisoned on Robben Island for 23 years with Mandela, who himself went into exile when he was 20 and was groomed by the iconic Oliver Tambo for his leadership in the party. These are not Jacob Zuma’s struggle credentials – he was on Robben Island for 10 years himself – but they are deep ties to a party and a country I am sure he loves.

Most of my feelings towards Zuma stem from a simple statement he made after he was acquitted of rape, in a big trial a couple years ago. The woman was HIV positive and they did not use a condom. He said his reasons for taking a shower right after sex were to minimize his chances of contracting AIDS. That a man who was such a following could spread these untruths across a country that is plagued by AIDS is what I find most upsetting. If I were a South African, then there might be more.

I wonder what kind of President Zuma will make, but I also worry about his supporters. Those like Julius Malema, head of the ANC Youth League who, proclaiming that Jacob Zuma will be President announced, “Any force in our way we will eliminate. We are on a mission here. We will crush you. It doesn’t matter who you are, even if you are in the ANC.” This was a few months after Malema said that he would “kill for Zuma.” He said that his comment was misunderstood. I’m not sure how. But now, it is this. I can’t be angry, just confused at the turn of events.

The actions of the last 48 hours makes me think that South Africa is fulfilling the worst stereotype the West has of African countries that gain democracy and then don’t know what to do with it and subsequently collapse within it – turn into dictatorships, eject leaders without following the democratic processes they have created. South Africa is not collapsing any time soon. But it does make me think twice about how we all perceive democracy, what it means to people here, and also what it means to us in the U.S. I think we reflect more, care more only as those essential pieces of democracy that we value are at risk of disappearing.

In the past couple weeks, I have continuously gone back to what a South African friend has said. He thinks that people here believe in democracy and proclaim proudly that they live in a democratic country. They know that means an independent judiciary, a free press, and free and fair elections. But they don’t necessarily know why these things, the free press, the independent judiciary, and democratic processes are central elements of what makes a democracy work, why they are important and must be maintained and valued. And that leads to questioning – of the loyalty and actions of judges, of the words and drawings of journalists and political cartoonists. We can make a comparison to home -- George W. Bush has an approval rating of around 25%. Millions want him out of office yesterday. Yet we wait. We know we have a 4-year election cycle, we are in the midst of a tough campaign, we know that no matter how we feel about Bush, we have to wait until November for elections and this President that most of us cannot bear will be our President until January. Could the Zuma camp not have waited too?

What was going to be the subject of this latest dispatch was also democracy – was about a free press and political cartoons. Two weeks ago Sunday brought the publication of a very controversial cartoon by the cartoonist Zapiro. Ever since Zuma’s rape trial, Zapiro has drawn him with a showerhead coming out of the top of his head. In this particular cartoon, he is unbuckling his pants, the top of his butt is showing, and his cronies – Malema from the Youth League, the ANC Secretary General, the head of the South African Communist Party and the head of COSATU, the trade union are holding down a woman. She is labeled Justice and Zuma is getting ready to rape her. The ANC Secretary General is pictured saying, “Go for it Boss.” There were outcries from the Zuma camp. Malema cried, “If he is so disrespectful now, what kinds of things will he do when Zuma is president?!” Zuma may sue Zapiro and has sued journalists before. Other people quoted in a newspaper hear wrote, its about time, this is exactly how I feel, who also say if this cartoon were written in words it would not be controversial. But Zuma and his camp are upset. Do they forget that with democracy comes freedom to criticize those in power? Are we simply supposed to criticize behind closed doors? A week later, the same cartoon appeared in the Mail & Guardian, but this time Zuma was talking, “Before we start, let me just say that we respect you.” Yes, these cartoons made a big statement, they were certainly controversial, but within the realm of democracy, they are should be drawn and discussed. Not silenced.

My roommate just said she thinks the best thing would be if this led to a split in the ANC. To a new party forming. New debate, more discussion, a new life for the party of the struggle perhaps. Tonight I will go and watch Mbeki’s State of the Nation. There will likely be an acting President appointed in the next few days, and elections moved up so that Zuma can take his place soon. I will continue to watch it all unfold. An interesting time, no doubt, to live here and have a front row seat to all of this.