In the year 2008, two weeks after having been unceremoniously removed from office of President of the Republic of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki wrote a long letter to the man who was to succeed him, Jacob Zuma. In the letter, Mbeki turns down the offer to campaign for the ANC in the 2009 national elections but, most importantly, he addresses the emergence of what he referred to as the noxious cult of the personality within his beloved party. The “I would kill for Zuma” populist comments that were spearheaded by then ANC Youth League president Julius Malema formed the core…
In the year 2008, two weeks after having been unceremoniously removed from office of President of the Republic of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki wrote a long letter to the man who was to succeed him, Jacob Zuma.
In the letter, Mbeki turns down the offer to campaign for the ANC in the 2009 national elections but, most importantly, he addresses the emergence of what he referred to as the noxious cult of the personality within his beloved party.
The “I would kill for Zuma” populist comments that were spearheaded by then ANC Youth League president Julius Malema formed the core of what Mbeki saw as the rise of the individual above ideology.
When the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) released its findings on the July 2021 riots, saying it could not establish a link between the riots and the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma, Mbeki’s warnings about the dangers of the cult of the personality had come full circle.
The SAHRC had allowed itself to succumb to the general fear that surrounds the primary cause of the 2021 riots: the misguided defence of Zuma by his supporters.
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It is really worrying that after 354 lives were lost and more than R50 billion decimated from the economy in just two weeks, an organisation of learned individuals such as the SAHRC cannot see what the whole country witnessed live on social media platforms and their television screens.
One of the ruling party’s biggest failures over the past 30 years in government has been the tendency to ignore urgent and burning problems in the hope that they will go away.
And the SAHRC correctly says President Cyril Ramaphosa and his executive failed to take actions to contain the unrest.
They were indeed hoping it will all fade away.
What they did not count on is that the cult of the personality is so strong that the misguided youth that had emerged in the “I would kill for Zuma” era had now been given a platform to loot, plunder and burn.
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And they had cheerleaders.
These were people in very visible places on the political spectrum who had warned previously, “all hell will break loose if Jacob Zuma is sent to jail”, and those who used social media to fan the flames of the violence.
Voice notes and videos exhorted people to go out and cause havoc.
Instead of telling the nation it cannot find the link between the riots and Zuma’s jailing, it would have been far better for the commission to say it doesn’t have a watertight legal, winnable case or, more aptly, it is scared to say it out loud because it doesn’t know the consequences of making such a link.
What Mbeki did not point out in the noxious personality cult letter is that the cult figure plays a very central role in the perpetuation of their hero status.
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In the July 2021 riot case, the cult figure slipped into a victimhood status, closely linked to his ethnic origins.
This way, those who worship him can easily identify with him because the logic will be “if they do not like our hero because he comes from KZN, then they must hate me too”.
Forgetting that “they” elected that person president in one of the strongest showings by the ANC in the polls in 2009, with 65.9% win for the ANC.
The SAHRC chose not to cause trouble for reasons only known to itself. The tragedy of it all is that those who caused the mayhem will feel emboldened.
They will believe – and rightfully so – that their hero is above the law.
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