Back in 2000, addressing a rally, the former vice-president of Zimbabwe, the late Simon Muzenda, was reported to have made this infamous statement: “If Zanu-PF selected a baboon as its candidate, you should vote for it.”
Muzenda made the statement in the context of the 2000 elections in Zimbabwe, in which Zanu-PF had, yet again, selected President Robert Mugabe as its presidential candidate.
At the time, some within and outside the party were beginning to question the notion of “a president for life” in a country that pretends to be a democracy.
However, in the logic of Muzenda, the people had no right to question the party about the qualities of the baboon, its mannerisms or its ability to lead, even if such a baboon was growing senile or insane.
Zimbabweans were expected to accept whatever baboon the party was offering them.
In any case, the selection of the baboon would have been done in their interests.
But why would a party of liberation be arrogant?
Two reasons can be advanced. The first is about a sense of entitlement to be voted for, the “remember-we-have-liberated-you’’ mentality of liberation movements.
The second relates to the absence of a credible political alternative.
What, then, has all this to do with South Africa?
There are similarities between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Not least of these is that we were colonised by the same people and are all still led by a liberation movement.
It is these similarities that help us dispel the notion of South Africa’s exceptionalism.
That South Africa was the last to attain independence and democracy has not exempted her from walking into the same potholes as other post-colonial societies.
The signs are already there for everyone to see.
The ANC, like other liberation movements north of the Limpopo, continues to beat the drum of its successes as a liberation movement, invoking struggle memory to dissuade the people from criticising its performance as a governing party.
Day in and day out, the people are reminded never to forget the “undying spirit” of this or that fallen hero or heroine, precisely to blackmail them never to switch their loyalty to other parties.
They are told that voting for political parties other than the ANC would be a gross betrayal of the ancestors, and would mark the return of apartheid.
Ironically, no matter how many times people remember the fallen heroes, it still takes the courts for the ANC to do such simple and straight forward things as delivering textbooks to schools.
Despite this, the ANC still feels entitled to be voted for on the basis of the “we-liberated-you’’ mentality.
Fortunately, this cannot last, thanks to population growth.
The next elections in 2014 will, once again, draw in a large pool of a generation of young people who have no sentimental attachment to the past.
Their experience with the ANC is not sullied by nostalgia about the struggle; it is about the ANC’s record as a governing party.
But the question is whether the youth will have an alternative.
This brings us to the second issue about political alternatives.
In South Africa we are under “a dictatorship of no alternatives”, to borrow a phrase from renowned leftist theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger. The absence of a credible political alternative is what fuels the ANC’s arrogance.
To understand this better, you need ponder only a few questions. If the ANC faced a real electoral challenge, would it be so arrogant as to defend Nkandlagate?
If there were a viable opposition with a credible leadership, would the ANC still keep Jacob Zuma as president or entertain the possibility of re-electing him in Mangaung, even after his government murdered 34 Marikana mineworkers in cold blood?
Zuma’s election to the presidency proves that the ANC’s arrogance has reached the levels of Zanu-PF – perhaps that’s what back in the day before Zuma put bread in his mouth, the SACP’s Jeremy Cronin meant when he referred to the “Zanufication of the ANC”.
A related incident to that of Muzenda occurred when former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema was still “prepared to kill for Zuma”.
At the time, Zuma was clearly poised to become South Africa’s president despite him facing more than 700 corruption charges.
No amount of public outcry about what would become of the image of a country led by a man with a dark cloud of corruption hanging over his head could bother the ANC.
“If Zuma is corrupt, we want him with his corruption,” Malema told the nation.
Again, it did not matter whether the party was offering a person whose credibility was beyond repair. The people needed to oblige and vote for him.
Sadly, this arrogance is likely to repeat itself after Mangaung. Should Zuma be re-elected, the ANC will again impose him on the electorate despite his poor performance in the government.
That the Constitutional Court unanimously found his appointment of Menzi Simelane as National Director of Public Prosecutions “invalid and irrational” does not seem to bother the ANC.
Even as the Concourt decision paints him as a man of poor judgement, the ANC will, once again, arrogantly impose him on the people of South Africa with his “irrationality”.
The question is this: for how long will the people of South Africa tolerate the ANC’s arrogance?
The absence of a viable opposition, let alone credible leadership in most of our opposition parties, deprives the people of choice.
Opposition parties should take their share of the blame for subjecting the nation to “a dictatorship of no alternatives”.
The state of opposition parties does not inspire hope about the future.
How, for instance, is the nation to place its hopes in the IFP if it is still led by a tired old man?
The prospects of most of our opposition parties are too tied to their founding leaders.
No one can guarantee the future of United Democratic Movement beyond Bantu Holomisa.
Some, like Themba Godi’s African People’s Convention, are a one-man show, with no potential of increasing their footprint beyond the regional cocoons of their founders.
While the DA is on a growth path, as evidenced by its performance in the last national and local government elections, its leader, Helen Zille, is honest in acknowledging the limitations of our existing opposition parties.
In a September address to the Press Club, Zille called for the realignment of our politics and asserted that “any party that aspires to govern South Africa must, at the very least, be trusted by people from different backgrounds and offer a credible, sustainable way of overcoming the socio-economic legacy of apartheid”.
Zille is indeed correct to observe that “none of our existing political parties, as currently constituted, can credibly offer this on their own”. It is indeed true that this includes her own DA.
Thus the call for the realignment of our politics has a great potential to offer the people of South Africa an alternative, especially if it culminates in the formation of a vehicle that can be trusted by all, with a leadership based on merit and imbued with integrity.
This call must, however, be accompanied by a vigorous campaign to alter the electoral law to allow for people directly to elect their own leaders.
The flaw of the current electoral system is that it has taken away the right of people to choose their leaders. Party bosses are the real gods of our democracy.
This is a serious electoral flaw that has hitherto allowed mediocrity in the ANC to manoeuvre its way to the Union Buildings, hiding behind historical legacies of the liberation movement.
The electoral flaw also perpetuates the arrogance of the liberation movement to impose on the nation dubious characters who otherwise belong on the scrap heap of our political history – or even in jail.
Only the formation of a credible political alternative and the reform of our electoral law will free South Africa from “a dictatorship of no alternatives”.
Only then can South Africa be saved from Muzenda’s baboons.
n Malada is a senior researcher at the Forum for Public Dialogue. He is also a member of the Midrand Group.