BHEKI MNGOMEZULU: The 'ethnic mobilisation' narrative will destroy the country

OPINION

Recent and ongoing developments in the country following the incarceration of former President Jacob Zuma have created pandemonium and tested the capability of various government institutions and their leaders. In a way, this state of affairs did not come as a surprise. Even before the Constitutional Court delivered its emotional judgment through Justice Sisi Khampepe, some people had already made it clear that should Zuma be arrested, the country would descend into chaos. Sadly, this warning was ignored by the political leadership and other government institutions – including the judiciary that is said to be an impartial institution saddled with the responsibility to deal with issues in an impartial and fair manner devoid of any prejudice.

The Constitutional Court opted to go for the harshest of the three sentences admissible in law. They decided to send Zuma to jail as opposed to giving him a suspended sentence or imposing a fine. Indeed, as was expected, this judgment was followed by heightened emotions. Scores of people from across the country's political and ethnic divides, as well as societal organisations, descended on Nkandla. This continued until Wednesday, 7 July 2021, which was the deadline for the police to arrest Zuma after he had failed to hand himself to the police by Sunday, 4 July 2021.

Once Zuma was admitted at the Estcourt Correctional Centre, the scene was set for the real showdown. Those who had promised to go on a rampage did exactly that.

The arrest of Carl Niehaus, one of Zuma’s staunch supporters, demonstrated lack of leadership and failure to read the political mood in the country. The fact that he was arrested for allegedly contravening the level 4 lockdown regulations added fuel to the fire.

Part of the reason was that a few days earlier, the Economic Freedom Fighters' leader, Julius Malema, led his people to the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority's offices to put pressure on them to approve more COVID-19 vaccines. After that, he proceeded to the border between South Africa and eSwatini to show solidarity to the struggling people of eSwatini. Both instances happened when the country was under Level 4 of the lockdown. Interestingly, nothing was done to him or any of his followers. When Niehaus was arrested, people raised eyebrows, with some complaining about selective application of the law.

The focus of this piece is on the negligent manner in which the mayhem which has engulfed the country has been handled and the careless manner in which it has been interpreted by some. There is an unsophisticated analysis which reduces these developments to “ethnic mobilisation” and “tribalism”. To be honest, anyone who holds this view is either naïve or unpatriotic. Such insinuation assumes that the country’s leadership should not worry because this is only ‘a Zulu matter’ that will die a natural death. This is a dangerous approach which ignores the reality.

Firstly, it is true that former President Zuma is a Zulu. It is also true that his home is geographically located at Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal. But Zuma was the President of the ANC and the President of the country. As such, his support base is not solely confined to KwaZulu-Natal as a province nor to the Zulu ethnic group as some allege. Even at Nkandla, not all the people who converged there were Zulus as some assume. The unrest that has engulfed the country transcends the Zulu identity that some are erroneously popularising. Provinces like the North West, Mpumalanga and Gauteng have not been spared, albeit in different magnitude. In a nutshell, the ethnic narrative cannot be sustained.

But what is of serious concern is the manner in which President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is the President of the country, has repeatedly reduced such a serious issue to “ethnic mobilisation”. When he addressed the nation on Sunday, 11 July 2021, he made this statement in public. Some thought that he had made a mistake like any other human being and looked forward to his apology. However, to their surprise, he repeated this statement on Monday, 12 July 2021, when he addressed the nation specifically on the current developments that are under way in different parts of the country. This fuelled emotions, not just in the social media, but across the country in general and across KZN in particular. Even celebrities like Amanda Black expressed their discomfort about such a statement that many saw to be divisive.

Now, what are the likely implications of this “ethnic mobilisation” narrative? I will highlight a few things. Firstly, those who were old enough in the early 1990s and witnessed what happened, or those who were young but have bothered to read about this history, should be worried. Ethnic violence – both real and imagined – resulted in the loss of many lives.

Once you invoke ethnic politics, you are playing with fire. In the history of South Africa, ethnic politics revive bad memories. It is surprising that even the President could be so careless to make such a statement more than once. Not surprisingly, there are some who have joined this bandwagon and even added “tribalism”.

Across Africa, the popularisation of ethnicity has resulted in the deaths of scores of people. Countries like Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria and many others have sad memories about this. It would be a shame if South Africa degenerated into an ethnic war due to people who sustain the “ethnic mobilisation” narrative in such a serious matter. Ethnicity is a timebomb. All that is needed is for one to pull the pin; then destruction happens.

What the country needs right now is political dexterity, visionary leadership by the judiciary and patriotism by everyone. Anything short of that will not help us. Deploying the army to quell the situation will address the symptom but not the real problem. The “ethnic mobilisation” narrative currently making the rounds needs to end immediately if this country is to come out of this quagmire. Failure to do so might trigger a racial war too.

Bheki R Mngomezulu is a professor of political science & deputy dean of research at the University of the Western Cape.

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