The riots in South Africa after the jailing of disgraced former president Jacob Zuma are a disgrace to Nelson Mandela’s vision and the progressive movement in Africa.
The former president embodied a leadership philosophy that has led to the economic, civic and political dysfunction in much of Africa. This leadership philosophy is a product of anticolonial nationalist ideas and residual pre-colonial traditional ethos. It is characterised by use of the mobilisational language and methods of the anti-colonial struggle; ethos borrowed from precolonial traditional governance; and formalities of a modern presidency. Throughout his presidency, for instance, Jomo Kenyatta’s mobilising tactic was to use the language of the anticolonial struggle with references to black rule, colonialism, imperialism, etc.
Additionally, he used the symbolism and language of traditional leadership — fly whisk and leopard-skin garb. Finally, he encouraged praise accolades reminiscent of a traditional chief: Simba wa Taifa, Father of the Nation, etc.
Of Kwame Nkrumah’s presidency, Renhold Niebuhr writes: “The cult of personality Nkrumah built around himself was an attempt to borrow the trappings of a traditional chief”.
The problem with this governance style was that the president operated outside legal and constitutional dictates. Yes, the president went through the formalities of a constitutional presidency, but in effect, he operated like a traditional monarch. Institutions meant to curb his powers became, as in a chieftaincy, extensions of his sovereign will. Ali Mazrui describes this phenomenon as a “monarchical tendency in African political culture.”
Jacob Zuma’s presidency, while not to the extent of Kenyatta or Nkrumah, shared disturbing similarities with the two. He used the language of anticolonialism, describing criticism of his corrupt rule as neocolonial hangover. When asked about his serial marriages on state time and at state expense, he groused about European hostility to African culture.
Like Kenyatta, he was in his element when he reprised the antiapartheid struggle. He was hesitant and unconvincing when discussing economic and social policy, preferring to don Zulu warrior regalia and dance to traditional songs. Caught between a traditional political ethos and anticolonial nationalism, and presidential formalism, South Africa stumbled and then ground to a halt. It is now up to the present leadership to rediscover Mandela’s vision, or a downward spiral will be inevitable.
It is a tragedy that a number of South Africans have bought into Zuma’s anticolonial nationalism. They are justifying the rioting as a manifestation of an ideological friction pitting Cyril Ramaphosa and capital on the one hand, and Zuma and black workers on the other. They also insinuate that Zuma represents Black interests while Ramaphosa and the judicial system represent White interests.
South Africans must resituate the debate as merely one about a corrupt president and the rule of law, and hold firm. And by so doing, give a vital lesson to Kenyan institutions on how to deal with thieves in high political places.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator