Publication: Business Day Issued: Date: 2004-10-07 Reporter: Aubrey Matshiqi

Beware Pitfalls of Ethnicity



Business Day

Date 2004-10-07


Aubrey Matshiqi

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Who will succeed Jacob Zuma if he, as traditional heir to the throne, loses the presidential race before the 2007 African National Congress (ANC) conference? This is a key question in the debate about the successor to ANC president Thabo Mbeki.

From Monday the country's attention will be focused on the trial of Deputy President Jacob Zuma's former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik. The name of the deputy president probably appears more times than that of the accused in the charge sheet. Zuma is a co-accused, but he will be appearing in a different court, the court of media and public opinion. Unlike Shaik, who will be making a lonely appearance in his court case, Zuma will enjoy the dubious relief of appearing alongside the infamous arms deal.

If Zuma survives both these cases, the path to power will be open to him as it is to the growing list of presidential hopefuls, in which case the question of who will succeed him will become relevant only if he wins the presidential race in 2007. If he loses, however, he might face the ignominy of being charged with corruption or suffer the obloquy of a guilty verdict in the court of public opinion.

Another reason Zuma's personality looms so large over the succession battle is a set of what may be best described as interesting coincidences. It is interesting that when an internal ANC debate about party unity had degenerated into the public frenzy of compiling a list of contenders, new "evidence" against Zuma emerged in two of our best newspapers at the weekend. Even more interesting is news of an "explosive" forensic audit report likely to torpedo Zuma's chances of becoming president of the ruling party. Because of what appears to be a new and more judicious way of leaking information to the media, the two newspapers did not have details of the potentially damaging report.

This does not mean there is no new evidence against Zuma, nor does it mean the new evidence is not explosive. As the charges against Shaik revolve around corruption and falling foul of the provisions of the Companies Act, media practitioners and primary definers, such as political and legal analysts, must be careful about how they engage with "evidence" to avoid becoming the useful idiots of political agendas. We must remember that the evidence against Shaik will face a test more stringent and more rigorous than the application of rules of evidence in a newspaper article or the court of public opinion.

Even if Shaik is found to have violated the Companies Act in his dealings with Zuma, it does not necessarily follow that he will be convicted on charges of corruption. The worst that may happen to Zuma in this scenario is his public image may be damaged. On the other hand, he may emerge stronger if it is felt that he is the victim of a political conspiracy.

We must, therefore, be vigilant because conspiracy theories abound and the three political witches are abroad performing a fiendish king-making dance. The proliferation of conspiracy theories and the dishonest king-making activities of political witches inside and outside the ANC may undermine both party unity and national unity. This may happen because there are some who have started justifying the succession battles in terms of ethnic agendas.

Resistance to a Zuma presidency is itself explained in terms of thwarting an attempt by an invisible Indian cabal to use access to political power for economic gain. P roponents of ethnic-based conspiracy theories argue in favour of destroying what they call "Nguni hegemony" and Xhosa dominance.

What is disconcerting is not the mere existence of conspiracy theories that are inspired by opportunistic tribalism and racism, but the sense of despair at hearing ANC members describe the decision of the ANC in Gauteng to have a public debate on succession as nothing but an attempt to "Vendalise" the ANC, or achieve a "Shangaan Renaissance" within the upper echelons . Add to this cauldron of opportunism the sentiment that the white left stands to regain its lost intellectual dominance over policy matters, and a messy succession battle begins to look less like a remote possibility.

Conspiracy theories constitute one of the dimensions of the broader context in which debates about unity in the ANC are taking place. The question is whether the ruling party will succeed in managing the succession debate in a manner that marginalises those who want to advance their political interests by sowing seeds of racial and ethnic division.

Whatever the roots of the ethnic and racial conspiracy theories , the achievement of economic ends through political power is indubitably their goal. Since the danger exists that the difference between perception and political reality will become irrelevant, our participation in the succession debate must aim to promote national unity, protect our democracy and ensure that the process produces the best person for the job.

To achieve this we must warn against people supporting Zuma only on the basis that he is Zulu or Nguni. At the same time, doubts about Zuma's suitability for the position of president must not blind us to the possibility that Shaik may be acquitted and may, therefore, have to add "king-maker" to his list of accomplishments.

Matshiqi is a political analyst.

With acknowledgements to Aubrey Matshiqi and the Business Day.