Don’t let cloudburst of open letters distract from the storm of corruption

Former president Jacob Zuma and President Cyril Ramaphosa

Former president Jacob Zuma and President Cyril Ramaphosa File picture: Cornell Tukiri/EPA-EFE

Published Aug 30, 2020


Professor Tinyiko Maluleke

Johannesburg - By the end of business on Friday, August 28, 2020, three out of the four presidents of the ANC since 1994, had left us a curious, if also uneven bequest of open letters.

Ironically, the most prolific and by far the most accomplished letter writer of them all, namely, Nelson Mandela, never indulged in the theatre of open letters.

Yet we may soon have enough open letters by ANC presidents to justify their own book of open letters. The use of open letters by ANC presidents must be seen as but one of several scenes of the sins of incumbency.

My earliest recollection of the deployment of the open letter as a weapon of struggle is with the 2008 furious epistle from Thabo Mbeki to Jacob Zuma, less than a month after Mbeki was recalled. The nub of that letter was contained in one of the longest sentences ever written in the history of South African English:

“I therefore could not understand how the same ANC which was so disenchanted with me could, within a fortnight, consider me such a dependable cadre as could be relied upon to promote the political fortunes of the very same movement, the ANC, which I had betrayed in such a grave and grievous manner as to require that I should be removed from the presidency of the Republic a mere six or seven months before the end of our term, as mandated by the masses of our people!”

In 2016, following the release of the Nkandla report by the public protector, Mbeki wrote another open letter to his comrade president, encouraging him not to dismiss the concerns of ANC veterans over Nkandla.

On Friday, Zuma published one of the vilest open letters ever written by an ANC president since 1994. Perhaps this was in revenge for the two hard-hitting open letters Mbeki directed at him during his incumbency? Or maybe it is in anger at Cyril Ramaphosa, not so much for raising funds for his CR17 campaign as the Zuma letter states, for who didn’t raise funds; but this may be anger at Ramaphosa for having beaten the Zuma candidate.

By virtue of being issued from the highest office in the ANC, once these letters of anger are written, they fork off in all manner of directions, intended and unintended, foreseen and unforeseen.

Fast-forward to August 2020 when, in a space of 10 days (August 19-28), we have experienced a cloudburst of open letters from Ace Magashule, Ramaphosa, Andile Lungisa and Zuma, among others. It is raining letters. I am afraid we may have to brace ourselves for more.

While the majority of the letters, save that of Ramaphosa, are seemingly addressed to specific individuals or groups within the ANC, we must not be fooled. Ultimately, these open letters are aimed at and intended for our consumption. The real addressees of open letters are none but ourselves.

So, when Ramaphosa writes in his letter saying, “I am raising this matter with you, my beloved ANC member, because it is you who has the power to bring corruption to an end in our movement and in our society”, he cannot, in all seriousness be speaking only to ordinary ANC members. For, in between conferences, what power, really do ordinary members of the ANC have over the NEC, the president, his deputy and the secretary-general? What power do ordinary members have over corruption?

It is, therefore, important that we as citizens should assess everything about these letters; their utterances, their silences, whether they are opportune or only opportunistic. We must not be sucked into the ongoing and senseless war of letters that is going on within the ANC.

As citizens of a country which has been in the eye of the storm of corruption for the longest time, up to and including the abhorrent and shameless covidpreneurship, we must keep our eye on the ball. Even the current rain of letters must not distract us because, whatever else these letters may be intended to do, they are intended also as red herrings, aimed at occupying and entertaining us while our country is burning.

The fanning of divisions and factions within the ANC is not only something that may be detrimental to the ANC, but it is in fact; a tried and tested ANC strategy of public distraction. These factional battles distract us from focusing on what matters in this country.

Once under the grip of the well-rehearsed ANC strategy of public distraction, using its own internal factions, we soon revert to the circular politics of personality in terms of which Mandela is better than Mbeki is better than Zuma is better than Ramaphosa is better than Mandela and round and round we go. In time, we will be so exhausted by the circular and bankrupt arguments that feed such political discourse as to run to the nearest ANC faction for solace.

A key tactic in the ANC politics of personality is that of separating the leader from the party and then praising one and damning the other. The other tactic is that of separating the state from the party, extolling the virtues of one and lamenting the vices of the other.

These tactics have been deployed, whenever necessary, not just now when Ramaphosa is president, but were used during both the Mbeki and Zuma eras, not to mention the Mandela era.

Beneath the current cloud of ruthless Covid-19 corruption, we as South Africans cannot allow the current cloudburst of letters to distract us. Our country is in grave danger. Let us focus on the country.

* Professor Tinyiko Maluleke is Senior Research Fellow, University of Pretoria Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.