What a comical irony. While President Jacob Zuma invoked his mshini wami battle cry inside the Thohoyandou church on Tuesday, his own comrades-cum-enemies were calling for his assassination outside, chanting dubul’ uZuma (shoot Zuma).
They conjured up Malema’s war song to undermine the president’s authority, embarrass him and challenge his power as state president.
What a shame that the president could only deliver a lecture about the glory of his beloved movement under the cover of heavy security, teargas smoke, water cannons, armoured casspirs and missiles hurled by hooligans.
Zuma choked on the toxic fumes of the teargas, or was it the poisonous atmosphere prevailing in his own party?
While Malema rented a crowd of howling hooligans, Zuma hired the self-styled military veterans.
Contrary to ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu saying there would never be a “no go area” for Zuma, the president sneaked in through the church’s back door and vanished as quickly as he could – according to our colleague Moloko Moloto, who was in Thohoyandou.
The erstwhile man of the people, who would have loved to wave and smile at cheering crowds – was running away from his own comrades.
History has a way of repeating itself as tragedy (to borrow from Karl Marx).
In April 2007 – on the eve of his visit to KwaZulu-Natal – Thabo Mbeki said there would never be “a no go area” for him.
Like Zuma, he was forced to hide behind a security curtain.
“Security will be tight when President Thabo Mbeki visits KwaZulu-Natal’s Uthukela District (Ladysmith) for a two-day imbizo at the weekend,” The Mercury reported at the time.
The saddest irony of all this is that Zuma seemed unconcerned by a disturbing culture of hooliganism emerging in the party, taking it to the dogs. Granted, he did try to intervene when Mbeki was heckled and a crowd walked out at the reburial ceremony of former SACP leader Moses Mabhida in KwaZulu-Natal in 2006. However, the heckling bolstered his campaign as he kept on telling crowds that the people had stood up for him.
Zuma was tacitly warning his rival that he might command the state power, but Zuma had raw people power, or youth power.
In May 2007, he told an audience at a rally to commemorate the death of Solomon Mahlangu in Mpumalanga that the youth were influential power brokers.
Well, the young rascals seem to be forcing him to taste his own political medicine.
Zuma dismissed Mosioua Lekota, party chairman at the time, who questioned what he believed to be a tribalist T-shirt such as “100 Zuluboy”.
And everyone now seems to have a T-shirt printing company to battle it out.
Zuma was not aware that he was sowing the seeds (or fertilising the soil) of intolerance within the party.
The level of intolerance is dangerously high and the rivalry is intense, according to Gwede Mantashe’s report to the national executive committee last year.
“Some comrades work for the chaos because chaos and anarchy are good forests for mischief.”
Mantashe did not mince his words.
Despite party leaders such as Blade Nzimande denying the anarchy – always pointing a finger at liberal onslaught – the party has never been the same since Nelson Mandela opted out in 1997.
Zuma must heed Mantashe’s warning when he said: “Comrades boldly boast that the abnormal situation and the divisions that characterised the 52nd conference must now be accepted as a tradition of the ANC.”
Zuma allowed this tradition, although he may argue – correctly so – that Mbeki was the one who divided the party. Zuma may contend that he tried to unify an already polarised organisation. And he may say his predecessor introduced the atmosphere of fear and patronage.
However, Zuma did not try harder to end the rot and he failed to discard the Mbeki-era paranoia.
Zuma saw plots everywhere. Someone, he claimed, wanted to poison him in 2007. Apparently, he was not keen to enter Mahlambandlopfu until some staff, including some in the kitchen, were gone.
Zuma stunned everyone last October by revealing an assassination plot against him.
All this, he seemed to have learned from his old friend, Mbeki. It was Mbeki who, through Steve Tshwete, hatched a conspiracy that his comrades wanted to oust him.
Zuma has developed a convenient amnesia. He forgot that such paranoia led to Mbeki ostracising some of his comrades (especially him), and thus dividing the party.
It appears he has completely forgotten about his own pledge to a tense and divided Polokwane conference in 2007: “The conference is now behind us and we will continue to work together to unite and build a stronger ANC.”
Even though he was justified to be suspicious of the Mbekites after the conference, he lost an opportunity to show statesmanship and lead the party out of the rubble of the Mbeki era.
Zuma failed to emulate Mandela, who inherited a party scarred by suspicions and mistrusts of exile, underground and Robben Island.
Mandela managed to contain his own Malema in the form of Peter Mokaba, who gave Madiba sleepless nights with his reckless speeches and what was perceived as racist slogans against white farmers. Mokaba’s youth league initially did not want Mandela to take over from Oliver Tambo as party president.
However, Madiba employed charm, statesmanship and a dash of Stalinism, or what Nzimande once termed “an imperial presidency” to rein in the young hooligans.
It worked to some degree.
Madiba also managed to (relatively) please most factions in the party and in the alliance.
However, Zuma – like Mbeki – gravitated towards his faction and discarded opponents.
Besides a promising start, Zuma cast aside the vow he made to the Polokwane delegates: “Let me emphasise that the leadership collective will serve the entire membership of the ANC, regardless of whether a person voted for Thabo Mbeki or Jacob Zuma or any other member or leader. We cannot have a Zuma camp or an Mbeki camp, there is only one ANC. None among us is above the organisation or bigger than the ANC.”
Zuma tried though and accommodated hostile Mbeki flak-catchers in his cabinet and office even when some were determined to frustrate his leadership.
However, he never dealt thoroughly with the culture of intolerance, of which the chief proponent and executor was one Malema.
Malema used to – in the name of Zuma – heckle, insult and abuse those he saw as outsiders (outside his faction).
Yet he was never reprimanded and still believes that such tactics can work to destabilise Zuma’s leadership. Malema knows no other political strategy, let alone reason. And he knows nothing but to rent a mob, hurl insults, boo, shout, intimidate and bully.
“If they hold a meeting anywhere, go and fight with them. There can be no peace until we get what we want,” Malema told a rally in Bloemfontein last week.
Malema warned that Zuma would never address large crowds from now on.
Unfortunately, as Gwede and deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe warned, it has become a sub-culture: the hooligans and the bully shall govern.
Regrettably, Zuma’s leadership style – as a consequence – perpetuated the chaotic state of affairs in the party. Zuma listens too much and consults to a point of indecisiveness and gives the likes of Malema too much rope. And the results: Opportunists will pounce. They confused “the post-Polokwane opened space” with a vacuum.
It’s easy to blame Zuma. What about the other top five officials? The party is imploding under their leadership while they create the impression that it’s a Zuma problem. It’s their duty to rescue it.
But it is too late now, with just five months to the elective conference. Zuma’s primary obsession is a second term, while some of his colleagues’ immediate vision is to stop him. The factional battle lines have been drawn.
There is little regard for the destructive impact on the organisation, as long as it continues to get a parliamentary majority. This is despite the SA Institute of Race Relations, a think tank, predicting that the party will lose its majority by 2024.
Zuma, who believes the ANC will rule until the Second Coming, will have to use a strong hand (that is if he is re-elected party president in Mangaung) to hold the centre together, and restrain the hotheads – from the youth league to the military veterans.
If he wants the party to survive, he will have to work closely with senior party leaders from the Mbeki era who were forced out of the party. Zuma has to rebuild the party and inculcate a culture of tolerance and political maturity. Also, he must use his strength – charm and humility.
However, as Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe warned at a Limpopo provincial general council last year, the victors will have no time to rebuild the party or heal the wounds of Mangaung.
They will return with a vengeance to purge the rivals and join what academic Achille Mbembe termed a permanent carnival.
They will then remind Zuma that they worked hard for his second term and deserve some rewards, what Joel Netshitenzhe described as the phuma singene syndrome. This means the president will forever be indebted to a faction, unless he puts a stop to it. The victors will hold the levers of power in government and state institutions, causing another disruption and discontinuity. Policy formulation and service delivery will be casualties of a succession war.
On the other hand, the walking wounded – to steal Zwelinzima Vavi’s phrase – will regroup, rearm and plot for 2017. They will find it hard to accept the outcomes.
In fact, this is not a comical irony, but a tragic one.