The Election Approaches: I Get Nervous When People Shout “Comrades”

With a presidential and parliamentary election approaching in South Africa, I’m definitely in my element.  Anyone that knows me also knows that politics is my thing.  But South African politics is a whole new world for me.  So far, I’ve attended a rally and a speech. But first, a little background:

Unfortunately, the energy and exuberance of the new democracy of 1994 South Africa has given way to a stagnant, corrupt political arena in which the African National Congress (ANC) wins no matter what.  Fortunately, this year’s April 22 election should be the most competitive so far.  The ANC has never really been a party supporting a coherent platform but, rather, a historic liberation movement that has maintained power based upon popular support for its apartheid struggle and the charisma of Nelson Mandela.  This past fall, though, a splinter group broke off of the ANC in protest of Jacob Zuma’s rise to the presidency of the ANC.

The new party calls itself COPE (Congress of the People).  If it’s lucky, it may garner 10% of the vote, but frankly, that’s being optimistic given its completely disorganized state.  The main opposition party (the Democratic Alliance or DA) is hoping to win the Western Cape province.  Notice that winning the election isn’t even a possibility for these parties.  Jacob Zuma of the ANC will be the next president of the country.  Imagine an election like that for a minute. With a preordained outcome, would you even have the incentive to vote.

Ok…so that’s a brief intro to the situation.  My friends and I are trying to keep up with the daily political developments (and they do occur daily…politics has a quite a dramtic flair here for such a stagnant situation) and attend rallies and speeches to gain as much understanding of the process as possible.  I also have my own insignificant little goal: to find t-shirts for each of the major parties (two down, by the way.)

Two weekends ago, we took a trip out to a black township called Khayelitsha to hear ANC President (and future president) Jacob Zuma speak.  The ANC had posted signs around the entire city the week before, so we immediately decided it was an event we had to observe.  One UCT student did warn us that the rally would be dangerous, but we checked with our adviser who actually said that he wished he had time to organize an event for the whole group to go.

But he did not, so we were the only non-South Africans there.  Actually, we were the only white people in attendance.  (To be fair, the rally was big, and I didn’t see every person.  But I saw most of the crowd, and if we weren’t the only whites…well, you get the idea.)

We arrived at the rally late.  The township was much further away from the university area than we expected, and traffic entering Khayelitsha was horrendous.  Buses packed full of ANC supporters lined the roads.  They literally shook for the energetic dancing taking place in the vehicles.  The roadsides were lined with the township’s residents waving and cheering at the entrants.  Many wore the t-shirts given out for free at the speech site– evidently, they went for the shirts but didn’t want to stay for the speech.   Walking the last few blocks to the speech, I was stopped by several passersby curious as to the reason I was there.  One guy with a megaphone leading chants of a crowd shoved the megaphobe into my face and harassed me until I yelled something. I had no idea what to say, so I just shouted “Go Zuma.”  Everyone laughed.

“No, no,” he corrected me, “It’s Viva Zuma!”

We we finally arrived at the field where Zuma would be speaking, we were relieved to find that the event was running late.  But we had no idea what was awaiting us.

Soon after arriving, a friendly guy grabbed me and said directly, “Follow.”

So we did.  He proceeded to lead us right up to the front.  At first, I was worried about offending all of those who had lined up long before to get a good spot.  On the contrary, the crowd basically parted, forming an open space for us to walk.  Many people shook our hands, smiled, and greeted us.  Several times, we heard onlookers shout things like, “The Visitors! Welcome to the visitors!”  By that, of course, they meant foreigners.  Several conversations confirmed this– the first question is always, “Are you from the states?”

This really is a significant issue and begins to answer the question I posed in my first blog entry: Is there one South African identity?  Several black South Africans have told me that when they see a white person speaking to a black person (even at the university), they immediately assume that the white person is a foreigner.  This isn’t to say that white South Africans are all racist.  But apartheid–what must have been the most unjust political system in modern times– ended just fifteen years ago.  Social relations have not overcome the separation.

So there we were…just fifteen or so yards from the stage.  As it turned out, we did not have any reason to worry about Zuma’s speech.  First, we had to endure at least ten other speeches.  Only two were noteworthy.  The ANC leader in Cape Town (the only city to have elected a non-ANC local government) tore into Helen Zille, Cape Town’s mayor and leader of the opposition DA.  He also explained the logic of voting for the ANC.

“Cape Town is part of South Africa. South Africa’s party is the ANC.  The ANC’s president is Jacob Zuma.  So Jacob Zuma is for Cape Town.”

The other entertaining speech was delivered by a high-ranking official in the South African Communist Party (SACP), which is part of a tripartite alliance with the ANC and the South African trade unions.  The SACP is a major sell-out.  Since 1994, the formerly socialist ANC has followed straightforward capitalist economic policies, but in order to cling to a place of power, the SACP has remained in league with the ANC.  That’s what made this man’s speech so laughable.  He welcomed all of us “comrades.” Then, he called for the downfall of all of the opposition parties, or what he called “the parties of the bourgeoisie.”

Finally, it was time for Zuma.  Now, there are a few things you should know about Jacob Zuma.  The man has been implicated in a major corruption scheme as well as rape.  On the rape charge, he was acquitted even though he fully admitted to having sex with the girl.  She communicated desire to him even though she maintains it was comletely nonconsensual.  Worse still for a country with one of the world’s highest HIV/AIDS rates, the girl was HIV-positive, and Zuma claimed to have gotten rid of possible infection by taking a shower.  On the corruption issue, he was removed from government, but last fall, a court ruled that the Thabo Mbeki, the president, had interferred improperly in the case to keep Zuma from taking power.  For this, Mbeki was removed for office, setting the stage for Zuma’s rise.  But here’s the drama I was talking about: a higher court just ruled that Zuma’s charges were handled properly.  So he will likely stand trial for corruption shortly after his election.  Oh, and just another fun fact: he is practicing polygamist with five wives and two fiancees.

His speech was utterly uncompelling.  To be honest, most of it was in Zula, of which I understand not a word.  However, he switched to English for his major points, so I could follow the speech.  The man divulged absolutely no hints of charisma or speaking talent.  He did, however, confirm how uncompetitive this election is.  On healthcare and education, two of the country’s most pressing issues, he promised only to set up a committee to study the issue further.  He is so confident of victory that it seems as though he doesn’t even have to try.

At the close, though, everything changed.  He began to lead the crowd in song and dance– I believe the songs were traditional songs of the anti-apartheid struggle.  Here, Zuma seemed natural and relaxed.  It’s possible that the man was destined to be a performer, not a politician.  It certainly would have been for the country’s benefit.

After the speech, we met a local precinct captain for the ANC.  He was excited to meet us, so he took my number and promised to let us know about future rallies. I also bought a shirt off someone’s back.  My friends thought it was hilarious that such a phrase could be applied literally.  But in my defense, I really wanted one of the t-shirts, and they were given out for free.  And I paid more than enough.

What an experience!  I stood just yards from the next president.  I am hopeful that he cleans up his and his party’s act over the next several years.  Despite his alarming ignorance on HIV/AIDS, he has been known to surround himself with experts, unlike the health minister for Mbeki who declared that HIV has no relation to AIDS.  Still, even if he were a better leader, what South Africa truly needs is a competitive political atmosphere.  The ANC must lose to know that it can lose…that if it doesn’t govern effectively, another party will rise to power.

And that was my first South African political experience.  Next up (maybe tomorrow?): Mayor Helen Zille’s speech at DA day on the university campus.

And we now have pictures here, so you can get everything right here:


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  • Sam, what a fantastic opportunity to view democracy developing. They are obviously going through the growing pains of transition from support for the party that brought such significant human and civil rights to a two or even multiple party system where there are a nmber of legitimate views. The ANC I am sure have many many good people, but they need to ensure their leaders remember what they are all about – not black versus white – but human rights and bettering the lot of those they represent. Be a good representative of the US and Georgetown while you’re there – be appreciative of the pportunity to see this political development unfolding. Love, M

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