Can the president use the tricks of his predecessors to tame opposition?
2 Feb 2015 | Mpumelelo Mkhabela | Original Publication: Rand Daily Mail
It is abundantly clear that President Jacob Zuma faces a tough time in parliament for the remainder of his term in office.
Opposition parties, especially the red irritants, as some governing party MPs disparagingly describe the EFF, are there to make sure he giggles as little as possible.
It is not clear though what Zuma’s strategy will be in response to the increasingly sharper arguments, finger-wagging and general rowdiness directed at him.
Zuma’s predecessors had their own strategies and personalities to contain a vocal opposition. Nelson Mandela used his aura, or what the political scientist John Kane calls “moral capital” to command respect across political parties.
Tony Leon, the ambitious leader of a tiny Democratic Party at the time, had the unpopular task of challenging Mandela on a range of policy matters. But whatever the challenge from opposition benches, Mandela had one important defence that no politician could master ... just being Mandela.
So respectful of him, MPs volunteered to reduce the number of question time sessions on account of his frailty.
The manner in which parliament interacted with him also gave the institution a huge quantum of what businessman Reuel Khoza calls the “moral quotient”.
However, even with the high moral ground on which he walked, Mandela could still feel the blows coming from the likes of Leon.
To counter this he employed appeasement and wooing tactics.
He offered Leon a cabinet post on the basis that opposition views would best be articulated within government where they stood a chance of being translated to policy.
Although the offer was packaged as a typical Mandela reconciliation move, it was carefully designed to weaken the opposition.
The IFP, the largest black opposition at the time and which had its leader enjoying the perks in government, would later learn the difficulty of singing with two voices.
Mandela’s strategy was an attempt to rid the opposition of its sharp teeth. Leon rejected the offer and went on to gain more votes for his party using all manner of divisive campaign tricks in subsequent elections.
But Mandela however succeeded in crafting a culture of mutual respect between the executive and opposition during the early years of democratic state building.
Enter Thabo Mbeki. Except for those he co-opted into his cabinet Mbeki had a generally frosty relationship with the opposition, made worse by his views on HIV-Aids and his policy on Zimbabwe.
But it was hardly personal. Only once was an opposition member sanctioned for violating Mbeki’s privacy after Douglas Gibson visited Mbeki’s retirement home and questioned how it was funded.
Mbeki’s agenda rhetorically and in practice was to fast-track state institution building and transformation initiated under Mandela. He was attacked mainly for his policy choices and decisions.
He had a defence different from Mandela’s. His main strategy was to intellectually bludgeon the opposition. They would complain that he was very cold. They missed Mandela’s warmth. But they couldn’t take away Mbeki’s bravery and his intellect.
Quite often he would turn the sharper edge of the knife against Leon and the rest of the highly critical opposition MPs. If Mandela’s strength was his moral standing, Mbeki’s was his intellectual and scholarly approach.
Who will forget the exchange between Leon and Mbeki on the global economy? In one of the last sessions before his infamous recall, it was Mbeki who came to Speaker Baleka Mbete’s defence and not the other way around when Leon demanded answers from the president during a question session.
Leon had asked a question about the development round of trade negotiations and the implications for South Africa. It was a very technical question and Mbete felt the president would need more time to prepare to answer.
After a brief exchange between Mbete and Leon, Mbeki eventually offered to “try to answer” the question. The “try” turned out to be a long lecture on the global political economy for which he got a standing ovation. It must have been a humbling moment for Leon, who must have felt he had cornered the president.
Also in Mbeki’s arsenal of defence were MPs who ate of out of his palm. It is no secret that during Mbeki’s tenure Exclusive Books had more clients from among the parliamentary benches of the governing party.
Despite the unbearable sycophancy Mbeki’s presidency bred — the mimicking and empty questions from ANC benches — parliament was largely in sound standing.
It was demeaning of ANC MPs to ask: “Honourable president can you reiterate what you said...” Or some question like that.
Zuma is neither Mandela nor Mbeki. His elevation was fractious from the start when opposition MPs tried to block his election.
He was the first to draw on his party’s strength to defend him against a motion of no confidence and when he had to deal with the Nkandla scandal.
He was the first to be heckled by junior opposition MPs. How he plans to deals with these is ongoing highly personalised, though not entirely devoid of principle, attacks on him will contribute a lot to his legacy.
So far he has continued to open more avenues for opposition MPs to unleash punches on him. Can he use the tricks he deploys on state organs to tame the opposition?