South African President Jacob Zuma still sings a song, Umshini Wami (My Machine Gun) from his time as a commander of the armed wing of the ANC at every public meeting. But beyond chest-beating celebratory gestures, what more is there to Zuma and the ANC, 22 years after Nelson Mandela was released from prison? Some say that the ANC under Zuma is turning autocratic. It has just rushed its secrecy bill through parliament.
Other countries have secrecy legislation. In itself the South African bill isn’t that shocking. But what is worrying, is what happened after demonstrations last September against the bill. The government agreed it needed more time to get it right. It promised to consult. And then without any warning the bill was pushed through parliament just before the Christmas recess.
This is trademark Zuma. Critics say he is a bully and a manipulator. He has not yet shaken off allegations that he received bribes during an arms deal when he was deputy president in the 1990s. Hence the secrecy bill, perhaps? Along with his constant meddling in judicial appointments. He revels in the internal divisions of the ANC, a party whose members address each other as ”comrade,” and who are deployed rather than appointed to jobs.
Zuma hires and fires his advisers at will. No doubt it keeps them on their toes. But it also ensures that very little gets done about the tuberculosis health emergency that has replaced HIV, or about unemployment which still sits stubbornly at 25 per cent. In the absence of successful economic policies, the ANC is putting more and more people on welfare grants.
Power was another old ANC rallying cry. Zuma has lots of that, and he will use this weekend’s centenary celebrations as a platform to launch his second term as president.
Of course the ANC should be allowed to have its party. But how much more poignant the celebrations would be if they recalled the self-sacrifice of Nelson Mandela, if they noted the lives lost by other anti-apartheid groups. Or, if they noted that South Africans of all races have far from completed their long walk to freedom.