Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Vote for a better yesterday by litigating the past

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18 Feb 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Tony Leon: It’s a stretch to proclaim the ‘brutality of apartheid’ explains the spike in service delivery protests. Why now?

SHAUN Johnson called his 1993 book of newspaper columns Strange Days Indeed. We have been experiencing no shortage of those recently.

As I sat in gridlocked traffic in Cape Town last Thursday, I noticed an air force helicopter hovering somewhere above the president’s residence at Groote Schuur. The city centre was in lock-down. The state of the nation speech was imminent!

Passing strange, I thought, this flummery of pomp, power and some execrable design disasters on the red carpet amid economic misery. But the Romans had bread and circuses. Strange as well that our state of the nation borrows in equal measure from the US president’s state of the union address and the Grammy Awards.

But that was not the only imported feature of the evening’s address.
President Jacob Zuma delivers his state of the nation speech in Parliament last week

President Jacob Zuma gave a South African version of what in US politics is called "litigating the past", or in the UK is known as "a vote for a better yesterday".

By casting his "South Africa has a good story to tell" narrative in terms of better quantitative delivery since apartheid, Zuma seeks to inoculate his administration from any of the missteps or missed targets since he assumed office in 2009. And, of course, the onset of the global financial crisis and this country’s first serious recession in 17 years, of which Zuma also reminded his audience, allow the government to cast itself as the victim of economic headwinds over which it has little control.

I don’t recall either presidents Nelson Mandela or Thabo Mbeki ever expressing, from the same podium, thanks for the opposite point: that, for most of their respective presidencies, South Africa was the fortunate recipient of the best set of global financial circumstances of the modern age. The repair of our national balance sheets was mightily assisted by those tailwinds.

The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) accused the president of "piggybacking on the achievements of Mandela and Mbeki". And in these two frames you have the predictable script for the next three months: for the ruling party, "You’re better off than you were under apartheid." From the opposition, "Bring back the Mandela and Mbeki years."

Eliding the past five years makes sense for the government, however easy it is to pick holes in its narrative. It’s a stretch, for example, to proclaim that the "brutality of apartheid" explains the sudden escalation and violent spike in service delivery protests. Why now? Why not in 2000 or even in 1997, when we were much closer to the racist past than we are today?

The DA script is undoubtedly informed by research suggesting that the African National Congress (ANC) ball should not be played because this might scare off new voters. So, attack the present captain, Zuma, and then those voters can square their unhappiness with him with their loyalty to his team and perhaps vote against him.

So the ANC has every incentive to cast its leadership in the mould of the past; while the DA suggests that you can somehow remain loyal to ANC ideals and mythology even while voting against its present iteration.

Strangely enough, Zuma’s speech, for all its omissions and selectivity of recall, underlined one incontestable achievement of his presidency. The introduction, about 15 years after it should have happened, of an HIV/AIDS policy and roll-out that is anchored in the realities and science of immunology, not based on the fringe lunacies of denialism. Judge Edwin Cameron’s recently published, compelling memoir, Justice, makes this point with clarity. He describes Mbeki’s infamous address in October 1999 to Parliament, when he attacked the "core scientific propositions providing the basis for antiretroviral treatment" as a speech of "menace".

And for the next crucial years, this "menace" became the basis of state policy and practice. It also provided the fiercest and most unpleasant clashes between Mbeki and his parliamentary opponents and civil society, especially the DA.

Strangely again, embedded even in the more benign and inclusive years under Mandela, were some of the origins of today’s crisis points: cadre deployment, the arms deal, the "transformation of the state" and the rollback of independent institutions. They all announced their arrival on his watch.

In short, reducing politics and the choices on offer to a question of the "good czar" versus the "bad czar", rather than framing a real contest around different world views and their consequences, doesn’t explain why you should cast this government out and replace it, rather than just remove its leader.

This approach might produce, well, a strange result.

• I would like to pay tribute to David Gleason, whose sudden death on Friday has shocked his friends, admirers and adversaries and his flock of "wandering albatrosses". His vital voice and acid pen will be much missed from these pages and from the public debate. May he rest in peace.

Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

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