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Time for national introspection

South Africans are partly to blame for the Zuma-sized mess our country is in. By not using our vote, by not demanding change, and by being gullible time and time again, we have allowed our politics to be corrupted. And without national introspection, says Mphuthumi Ntabeni, we are doomed to repeat our history.

In my culture, you don’t kick a man when he is down, but I will say that it is good riddance to bad rubbish. And while this would be an opportune moment to question Zuma’s psychological mind-set, I'm much more interested in the mindset of South Africans – we who have enabled narcissistic men like Zuma to take the helm. After all, it is partly the betrayal of our women and daughters by overlooking the pandemic of rape culture and toxic intersectional reach of patriarchy and residual tribalism in our country that delivered Zuma to the helm of highest political power. A country that overlooks serious charges of rape committed by an individual and still makes him president has nothing to be proud of. It is also culpable in his failures that were, in my opinion, clearly foreseeable.

Zuma was, however, a useful tool for the real wolves, some of whom have now placed themselves at the forefront of Cyril Ramaphosa's campaign. We need to face up to this.

It was the betrayal of the poor by the previous administration that enabled a compromised personality like Zuma to come into power. He was seen as a humble man of the people, an antidote of the snooty pipe smoking philosopher king and his back door neoliberal policies that ravished our poor communities. It was a symptom of despair that people thought it better to raise a common man they thought would champion their cause. That the common man proved more corruptible and clueless is the tragedy of the South African story of the last decade.

I had hoped Zuma would call the bluff of the ruling party by taking his chance on a vote of no confidence by MPs in the National Assembly. Had parliament been the institution to remove him, it could also have probably served to strengthen our democratic culture by bolstering that wing of government. A vote of no confidence would have automatically spelt a new cabinet, helping to rid the country of cancerous ministers.

This is not a moment of vacuous triumphalism, but of necessary national introspection. It is disingenuous to act as if Zuma is the cause of everything wrong in our politics when, in truth, he was just a microcosm of our political decadence. I am certain, beginning with the State of the Nation Address that Cyril Ramaphosa is going to deliver, that he will continue his bright-days-ahead new era speeches. We hear this each time the ruling party changes the lead horse. Then, eight years down the line, we are again back to this moment of despair and frustration. Albert Einstein was of the opinion that the definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting different results.

Destruction of our politics

What is destroying our politics is the personality cults we vest in and the culture of patronage that follows this. Opposition parties are not immune from this phenomena. Also, power corrupts absolutely when it is converted into governance, as the DA is finding out the hard way in the City of Cape Town. The dearth of vision and political fragmentation are a major cause of why opposition parties are unable to go beyond the personality cults and suffocating egos of respective leaders. This is part of the reason they're not attractive to the great majority of voters.

What is also destroying our political culture – and with it our country – is that we, as citizens and voters, are enablers of corruption and mediocrity by not demanding proper accountability from the parties we put into power. We are not using our vote, the major weapon we have in our democratic system, to punish those who take us for granted.

The most dangerous in our political culture are the chameleons that change colour to suit the power mongers they use for their vested interest. This group is constant and indelible. They’re now the people who, today, are vilifying Zuma whom they delivered to us and protected for more than a decade. You’ll find them in the corridors of power, no matter who is at the helm. They have now become the loudest praise singers of Ramaphosa.

When constructive criticism of Ramaphosa arises, they'll also form a toxic laager of political regression around him – at the tragic cost of the country’s political and socio-economic imperatives – until he is no longer useful to them and becomes a sitting duck president. At this stage they'll sing a different tune to whoever will be the incumbent; telling us they’re ready to recover the integrity of the country they dragged into the mud a few years before. And the rest of us, they think, must listen to them and toe the line again for the sake of patriotism. These are the real architects of our political decline, hiding behind the masks of defending the revolution and other such nonsense. The unfortunate thing is that we’re gullible, or nostalgic enough, to buy it all the time. Until we change our thinking, nothing will change in our political culture.

I wish I could believe that the battle for the future of South Africa has now really began, but what I see does not fill me with hope. I am especially wary of Ramaphosa’s predilection for recycling and rebooting old politicians who were actually part of the reason which made it possible for a compromised person, like Zuma, to become the president. If I am right then we might as well just allowed the Zuma dynasty to continue.

For now, I am still willing to give Ramaphosa the benefit of the doubt, despite my misgivings about him and the ANC. Let’s start with cleaning the stables, bringing to book the corrupt – which includes Jacob Zuma. Let's ensure the recovery of the country's economy to benefit the poor much more – instead of the elite.

Is Ramaphosa up to the job? Only time will tell.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.