Monday, July 28, 2008

Zuma and Afrikaners

Zuma seems to be making serious in-roads in the Afrikaner community — especially among the poor who feel left out in post-1994 SA

Even the Freedom Front Plus has made the extraordinary request for Zuma to officially open its national conference next month.

To poor whites ignored by Mbeki, Zuma cuts an engaging and sympathetic figure.

Officially, this was no election campaign meeting. But everything during ANC president Jacob Zuma’s return visit to this impoverished white community of Bethlehem, Pretoria West, proved otherwise.

There was the usual bussing-in of the poor from neighbouring settlements; the customary walkabout to show concern for the wellbeing of the locals and, of course, promises of improved service delivery.

Zuma even made fun of his inability to speak proper Afrikaans and joked about how this had been a problem when he was still on Robben Island as a political prisoner.

“I was with a gentleman from Cape Town; his name was Russel Mbani. We were making noise and in prison and we were not supposed to make noise. “The warder opened up and posed a question... ‘Wie maak rass hierso?’

And this gentleman stood up and said, ‘I am Russel, sir,’” he said. The trick worked, because his audience thereafter seemed okay with him addressing them in English.

There was even an odd election campaign T-shirt. No, it was no “100% Zuma” shirt. It was a white T-shirt with a huge picture of a smiling US presidential candidate Barack Obama. The words “Vote Obama” were written in bold letters underneath an American flag.

It would be stretching it to assume that the young black man who wore the T-shirt associates the ANC leader’s cause with that of the US presidential hopeful.

But there can be no doubt that, like Obama — although not as successful or convincing, part of Zuma’s election strategy is to portray himself as a leader who would return “the rainbow nation” to its non-racial path to nation-building.

Since his election as ANC president in December last year, Zuma has been on a charm offensive trying to convince a sceptical South Africa and the world about his suitability for the country’s presidency.

He has had his hits and misses. But one area where he seems to be making serious in-roads is in the Afrikaner community — especially among that community’s poor who feel left out in the post-1994 South Africa.

Staff at Luthuli House say Zuma’s office is inundated with requests from various Afrikaner organisations for him to address their meetings. Even the Freedom Front Plus, which under normal circumstances should treat Zuma’s ANC with suspicion, as it is an opposition party, has made an extra-ordinary request for him to officially open its national conference next month.

There are a number of personalities, who Zuma calls “my friends”, who have played crucial roles in linking him up with the Afrikaner community. Chief among these is Liesl Gottert, the media specialist with alleged links to the apartheid-era military intelligence.

Zuma brought her along to his Bethlehem meeting and spent some time explaining to his audience about her role in maintaining his contact with the community. Through her, Zuma has developed strong ties to trade union Solidarity — which has shot to prominence in post-apartheid South Africa mainly due to its dogged opposition to the manner in which affirmative action and black economic empowerment has been applied.

Solidarity deputy secretary Dirk Hermann credits Zuma for giving Afrikaners, especially the poor and working class, a hearing. “Zuma is much more accessible than President Thabo Mbeki. He gives us the sense that all have a place here,” Hermann said.

Hermann blames Mbeki’s famous “two-nations” thesis — in which he said South Africa was a country made up of a white and rich nation as well as a black and largely poor nation — as a major contributing factor to whites feeling alienated in the new South Africa.

“There was no place for white poverty in his two-nation speeches,” Hermann said. But why do they think Zuma would be any different if he takes over as president?

“He has shown a lot of understanding. He is willing to listen. Even his visit here today, we did not invite him. He is the one who said he wanted to come back because he had promised to return to the area during his previous visit.

That is why we believe that he is sincere,” said Hermann. Zuma, for his part, says he has been “itching to interact” with the Afrikaner community for years.

“I have been feeling there was a need to interact because since 1994 or so there has been a bit of uneasiness, suspicion, uncertainties — and there are policies that some people are not happy about. I have been itching to interact as much as possible,” he told his audience of about 1000 poor whites who had gathered to listen to him.

During their campaign against Mbeki’s bid for a third-term as ANC president, Zuma supporters had “back to basics” as one of their important mottos. They promised to take the ANC and South Africa “back” to the nation-building agenda that they claim had faltered during Mbeki’s “African nationalist” agenda which had apparently made whites feel excluded.

Zuma clearly had the same message for his audience: “Every South African has a right to the services of the country, every South African. There is no South African who must be excluded so, therefore, don’t feel you don’t have a right to raise issues,” he said.

By visiting such areas as Bethlehem and meeting Afrikaner musicians, politicians and academics, he is carving for himself a role of a unifier, a post-Mbeki nation-builder.

“Afrikaners have played a very specific role in shaping the history of this country. Whether … people like it or not, that is part of the history of this country. From the days of the Great Trek to the South African War — the Anglo Boer War; to the formation of Euro South Africa; to the days of apartheid; the days of negotiations and now. “They are an important group to interact with. Not that other groups are not important.

But they have a very specific historic (role)... “We therefore feel it is important to interact with them, politically speaking, to help bring harmony, peace and stability in this country,” he said.

In his campaign, Zuma is also carefully cultivating an image for himself as a leader who can get things done. When the Bethlehem community complained to him about having no access to social grants, toilets and electricity, Zuma decided to return to the community with the government in tow.

As he addressed the meeting, hundreds of destitute whites were busy outside the marquee registering for various social grants. Social development minister Zola Skweyiya had to leave the important cabinet lekgotla in the city to come and field questions from Zuma’s audience about service delivery.

So too was Tshwane mayor Gwen Ramakgopa brought along. But Zuma’s efforts at portraying himself as a nation-building statesman continue to be undermined by the many question marks relating to his upcoming corruption trial as well as the reckless utterances of his most ardent backers in the ANC alliance, notably ANC Youth League president Julius Malema and Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

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