About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, July 19, 2021

South Africa’s slippery slope

Why the arrest and detention of Jacob Zuma is dangerous for the unity and stability of the “rainbow nation”

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | The arrest and detention of former South African president, Jacob Zuma, for contempt of court is a sad event. No wonder, many South Africans have taken to the streets in violent protests at it. It is very possible the arrest of Zuma can lead to the disintegration of the post-apartheid state in South Africa, at least as we currently know it. This is largely because post-independence African elites use theories drawn from textbooks, written at Harvard and Cambridge, Stanford and Oxford, explaining experiences of Europe and North America, as the solution to our problems.

South Africa is a multi-ethnic state, hosting several ethnic and racial groups. These groups are sometimes hostile to each other, often very suspicious of the other – especially their intentions. The biggest challenge today is therefore one of nation building i.e. how to make these different ethnic and racial groups develop a common national consciousness. To achieve this requires appreciating the psychology of these different groups, most especially their fears and suspicions. It is on this basis that one can craft laws, policies and practices that address these fears and suspicions.

In 1994, the ANC under the leadership of Nelson Mandela seemed to appreciate this. It recognised that white people, for instance, were a rich and powerful minority who had dominated and terrorised black people for generations. The guilt of their actions had made them afraid, in fact terrified, of democracy. They saw majority (black) rule as a threat to their economic dominance, cultural life and a diminution of their racial status. If you were a black person who had been denied economic and other social opportunities like education, health and your cultural life, these fears of a privileged white aristocracy bordered on excessive self-indulgence.

Mandela’s aim was to build a rainbow (multi-ethnic, multi-racial) nation. To achieve this goal required making a series of compromises and giving a number of concessions to this privileged white aristocracy, many of which were morally offensive to the majority of black, colored and Indian people. Many people in these other racial groups felt that to redress the wrongs of apartheid required the expropriation of white property – land that had been forcefully taken from black people, mines that were privately owned, banks and other businesses that had been built on the back of forced or poorly paid black labor, etc. These feelings were strong.

But Mandela understood, that however much many black, colored and Indian people may feel that compromise with apartheid is immoral, it was important to accommodate the fears of the white minority, not only in law and policies but also in practices. Anyone who has watched the movie Invictus (based on the book by John Carling titled Playing the Enemy), would remember how Mandela demonstrated the importance of gesture in political and social reconciliation. There is a dramatic scene where Mandela goes to an ANC meeting that had just abolished the name Springbox, the South African nearly all-white national rugby team.

He tells the meeting that it is important to make whites feel a part of the new nation. One way to do this is to tolerate and even embrace their cultural symbols – like keeping the name Springbox. He himself had learnt and spoke fluent Afrikans, the language of white south Africans. There are many criticisms we can make of Mandela’s compromises with and concessions to whites. But there was one underlying theme: that to build a nation requires, and indeed demands, accommodation with things that may even be repulsive to your people. This demands political acumen, not legal theories.

This brings us back to the present in South Africa. Many South Africans, especially Zulus, the tribe of Zuma, know that presidents like Pik Botha and de Klerk were responsible for mass murder and torture of their kin. As part of Mandela’s reconciliation, there were no criminal charges against those leaders of apartheid who committed these mass atrocities. How do they feel when they see their son, a former president, going to jail for contempt of court or on charges corruption? This is where the judicial system of South Africa and its political leadership have failed to read the signs – and may plunge that country into civil strife leading to the dismemberment of South Africa and its democratic institutions.

South Africa, and many other African countries, need to learn the risks of an idealistic pursuit of what is legally right. The common saying that never make the perfect the enemy of the good applies here. Indeed, in their 1983 classic song, the music group Atlantic Star, have a line that says: “How could something so wrong be so right.” The leaders of apartheid had oppressed and terrorised black people. It was so wrong not allow justice follow its course by taking them to court and trying them for mass murder. But Mandela understood that for the greater national good, it was important to place political reconciliation above criminal prosecution. Many wrongs of apartheid could only be righted by actions that would undermine political reconciliation and ultimately nation-building.

Given the deep ethnic and racial cleavages of South Africa, the arrest and detention Zuma are not a mere matter of law but of politics. Laws are made by politicians and their implementation should not threaten the integrity of the nation. Many Zulus may see the detention of Zuma, a symbol of their tribal pride, as an attack on their ethnic group generally. And this may have unforeseeable consequences. Justice should not only be done. It should be seen to be done. It seems to me that many Zulus do not see the detention of Zuma as a pursuit of justice but as a political vendetta.

In fact, South Africa can pick a leaf from the USA, a country which many African elites admire. After its civil war of 1861-64, America did not charge any of the leaders of secession in the South of treason. On the contrary, it accommodated them. Nearer home, after the genocide in Rwanda, Paul Kagame and his RPF colleagues recognised that criminal prosecution would deepen the wounds of hatred and division. So, they sought restorative justice through Gacaca courts. In all these cases, political reconciliation was placed above criminal prosecution and the results were bountiful. It is sad that South Africa has learnt no lessons from her own history and the consequences may be terrible – the dismemberment of that country.



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