[ANALYSIS] Hypocrisy’s many shades

It is known the world over that politicians, in democracies and other forms of government, are going to be hypocritical from time to time. Expediency, putting personal interest above principle, comes with the job. But at no time is this more evident than during times of great political change, and the one such event is unfolding right in front of our very eyes.

We have seen wonderful illustrations of hypocrisy in our politics since the political wind-shift of Nasrec in December 2017. In the political world of South Africa since Cyril Ramaphosa’s ascent to power, many who supported one point of view will suddenly stand up and support another, sometimes opposite, position, often without any explanation or enlightenment about which facts have changed to warrant such drastic alteration of course. Usually, the only fact that has changed is that the wind has a new direction, and so it is in their best interests to undergo an extraordinary transformation.

It was the former Ambassador to Bapetikosweti, Her Excellency Evita Bezuidenhout, who probably put it best when she said that “hypocrisy is today still the Vaseline of political intercourse”. The big point here is that without it, foreplay will be all you get, there will be no happy ending for anyone, because nothing could get done.

Often, particularly in democracies, getting something achieved requires the representatives of different groups with different interests to go into a small room somewhere and agree to something – this is how deals were struck for many generations. In the case of political change, there are usually people who fall into the middle of two categories; they represent a group that doesn’t particularly mind which side wins. Or, more obviously, they are prepared to simply back the person who will win, as opposed to the person who will lose. There is no principle involved here, just plain old personal interest.

There are plenty of good examples of this. Malusi Gigaba, the current Minister of Home Affairs, appears to have been doing for years exactly what he was told by people who appear to have a plethora of passports, but whose nationality is still difficult to discern precisely. Then he ended up as Minister of Finance, and gave a Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement that demonstrated that he simply did not know who would win. The moment Cyril Ramaphosa won the ANC election, he tacked that way, and got as close as he could. His reward was to remain in Cabinet, for now, and be personally smothered by the political scrambled eggs all over his face

Fikile Mbalula is another good example. His hypocrisy has been on public display for many years, through all of the political events of the last decade. His support of former President Jacob Zuma, Julius Malema, Zuma again, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and then, after his victory, Ramaphosa, must have left him more than dazed and disoriented. But in the end, he has also been punished for this. He gave every impression of enjoying his position as Minister of Police. To go back to the humble corridors of Luthuli House with no government VIP brigade to spoil him must be a humiliating experience.

At the same time though, there is also the hypocrisy of entire political entities, and what happens when the winds change. Just last year the ANC caucus of MPs all argued against the expropriation of land. Some of them gave well-argued speeches about why land expropriation without compensation would damage the country, and should not be instituted. Then, simply because of a late-night policy change at Nasrec, the same people got up and argued entirely the other way.

This is surely a different form of hypocrisy. Yes, people are arguing for what they argued against last year. But it is not just for personal political advancement. Individual MPs are simply following orders. This may be callow in some ways, but it’s also less ignoble than Gigaba’s actions. However, they are not without blame. It shows that what is said in Parliament by MPs is not their own view, that they have not constructed arguments either way, and that they are simply voting fodder. This is less than dignified for people who claim to be leading a national debate in Parliament. But it is also surely true. This also means that when they make arguments in the future, and appear passionate about something, it’s obvious that the passion is fake.

There is a much more complicated conversation to have around hypocrisy in certain circumstances, where there is a tactical component to it. It is obvious that Ramaphosa and Zuma have not seen eye to eye for some time. And yet for years Ramaphosa made speeches in which he quoted and praised the former president. This leaves him open to the claim that he only saw the light towards the end of the Zuma presidency, which is surely not true. The same question could be asked of ANC MPs who were clearly campaigning against Zuma in the ANC, and yet voted to retain him as president during the secret ballot vote in Parliament in 2017. They were obviously saying one thing, and voting another.

But the difference here is that there was still the long-term aim of removing Zuma from power. For them, as has been widely discussed, the only way to remove Zuma and keep the ANC together was to be hypocritical in this way. This means that if their interests are only the longer-term interests of the ANC, their decisions were correct.

But if you assume that their primary interest is supposed to be the well-being of the country, then they may become vulnerable to criticism. Of course, they could also argue that removing Zuma before Nasrec would have led to political chaos (an ANC caucus that was split may have been able to vote with opposition parties to remove Zuma, but would never have been able to unite to elect a new president, with early elections being a possible result), which would not have been in the interests of the country. Certainly, that might have led to some people finding it easier to sleep at night.

It should not be forgotten that it is not just those who are in power who engage in hypocrisy. All politicians have to do it from time to time.

The most famous example of an opposition politician doing so here is, of course, Julius Malema’s claim that he would never leave the ANC and form his own party (the video is good viewing). Obviously, he has not lived up to that promise. Recently, his party has promised that he will never go back (there’s more video!). Only time will tell if he lives up to that promise.

The same is of course also true for the DA. The party campaigned hard in the 2016 local elections, and fought against other smaller parties for the anti-ANC vote. Yet it then turned around and formed a coalition with many of them, including the UDM, the IFP and the Freedom Front Plus. When asked about this during the announcement of the coalition’s formation, DA leader Mmusi Maimane’s response was that a lot had been said on the campaign trail, and it could stay there. It was the kind of response that is both meaningless and helpful. And full of Vaseline.

The party has also claimed to be for the Constitution and the rule of law. And yet it had no problems cosying up to AbaThembu King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo when it was obvious he had broken the law and committed a violent criminal act. This is the kind of hypocrisy that a party indulges in when it is desperate to change a particular image that it has.

The funny thing about all of this is that voters, here and around the world, are very aware of this hypocrisy. They know about it, and more important, understand it. They make up their own minds. Only voters can judge whether to accept Malema’s claim that he still speaks for the poor while wearing Louis Vuitton, whether the ANC’s view on land expropriation has really changed, or whether the DA really lives up to its claims of fighting for the Constitution.

Whichever way this country goes, hypocrisy will be its constant companion. It is just the way it is.

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick. Go to www.dailymaverick.co.za for more comment and analysis.

Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of 'SA Politics Unspun'. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes