One of the problems faced by Jacob Zuma in his quest for re-election as President of the ANC in December 2012 is that he no longer commands the kind of fawning press support which he received when he was campaigning against Thabo Mbeki, when he was trying to elude prosecution for his crimes, and when he was installing his cabal of shysters and corporate whores in government in the first two years of his government.
Is this an enormous problem for Zuma? Certainly it is inconvenient that the media which reflects or controls the opinions of many of the wealthiest and most powerful South Africans is no longer particularly supportive of him. On the other hand, the people who actually vote for Zuma are extremely distrustful of the press — as shown by the outrageous lengths to which his toadies went in pretending that the press was hostile to him at the time when they were not. (Meanwhile it is interesting that the luckless Jimmy Manyi has been hoofed out of the job of Zuma’s chief press spokesperson because the press doesn’t like him; obviously, behind the scenes, Zuma thinks that a little beaming and goose grease will make everything all right again.)
Evidently, while Zuma or the members of the cabal around him want the media to be supportive, this isn’t going to have much influence over the outcome of the elections at the National Conference. And, therefore, at rock bottom, if the elite who control the media withdraw their support from Zuma, this doesn’t mean that Zuma is not going to continue running the country. Insofar as elite support helped Zuma to take power, this means that they have created something over which they do not have the kind of control they would have desired.
This lack of control, of course, is the chief reason why they want Zuma removed from office and replaced by a more completely compliant dogsbody — so the whole episode appears to be a kind of postmodern self-referential game, except that it is a game where the losers are all the rest of us excluded from the elite and the immediate beneficiaries in Zuma’s circle.
The treatment of Zuma by the press is itself interesting. It is certainly a huge contrast from his treatment by the SABC, which sticks his droning, halting voice on every news broadcast and proclaims the profundity of his every empty utterance at every inconsequential gathering. (This probably has the effect of exasperating the public far more than persuading them of anything; it is like a bad advertisement which won’t go away because the advertisers have paid so much for it.)
There is a great deal of press criticism of the ANC. This criticism focusses particularly on corruption, a term which means essentially nothing. That is, when a state institution fails an audit this is defined as corruption even though no corruption has been demonstrated anywhere; when a private institution gets a state contract and that institution does not have the right connections with the press, this is defined as corruption. When no corruption has been demonstrated, or when it has been rooted out, this is a sign that it has been cleverly hidden, as in the 1997 arms purchase.
What is actually happening here is that the actual, relatively minor (but not insignificant) indications of corruption in the state are being used to proclaim that the state itself is corrupt. This seems to incorporate two agendas. One is the neoliberal agenda, that the state cannot be trusted. If the state is corrupt then obviously the state cannot regulate the business community (a.k.a. the white elite) and therefore proving the state to be corrupt is a good thing. (Also if the state is corrupt then any redistributional measure from rich to poor is ipso facto corrupt and therefore should be discontinued.) The other is the racist agenda, that black people cannot be trusted to run any establishment without white supervision and therefore that the state is defective because black people have taken over. This is the line pushed most conspicuously by Moeletsi Mbeki (because if a white person said such a thing, its self-serving dishonesty would be too conspicuous). A minor by-product of this latter agenda is that it is easy to persuade a black person that these allegations of corruption are entirely contrivances of white racism and therefore should be disregarded — which is handy for anyone who happens to be black and corrupt.
Such criticism of the ANC is not new — although it is more justified under Zuma’s administration than it has ever been. It is, however, wholly opportunistic and serves to distract attention from much more substantial problems. Meanwhile, such criticism ought to cut sharply at the Corruptor-in-Chief, since Zuma, it is well known, is the only President in South African history to face corruption charges, and moreover, had the charges dropped under shady circumstances rather than exonerating himself in a court of law. So, one would think, most of the mud flung at the ANC ought to adhere to Zuma more than to anyone else.
And yet the mud is always flung in a fashion particularly intended to pass Zuma by. Is there corruption in the process of constructing unnecessary power-plants? Look, Mbeki was responsible for an earlier tender for power-plants, and that must have been corrupt because Mbeki, and Zuma cancelled it — so he must be clean! Is there corruption in the process of providing textbooks? That must be the fault of the provincial government which Zuma is trying to smear, or of the education minister who was Zuma’s instrument in the smear, or of anyone but Zuma himself! Look, Zuma is going to Talk to the People (in a heavily-guarded venue with carefully-vetted audience)! He cares! Our Sovereign Lord the King obviously does not know what his Bad Barons are doing!
Attacks on Zuma are far more about his personal life; his sex life, or his business interests (but don’t mention Schabir Shaik, please). The noisiest attack on Zuma, and the one most related to his actual role in government, is the “Zumaville” campaign to denounce the development of three disadvantaged areas, because one of these, coincidentally, by happenstance, chances to be next door to Zuma’s fortified compound in Nkandla. This is, of course, a worthy campaign. It is outrageous both that the President should be allowed to build himself a gigantic luxury bunker in a secluded area — a kind of Berchtesgarten without the mountains — at the taxpayer’s expense, and worse still that he should be accused of organising that the neighbouring community becomes a peri-urban area at the taxpayer’s expense, arguably so that Zuma and his hangers-on don’t have to take the 4×4 all the way to Pietermaritzburg to do their shopping. (Not that the idea of ploughing big bucks into a blank spot on the map doesn’t have its advantages from a Keynesian economic perspective.)
But even this is interesting. The Minister of Local Government was hounded out of office for getting state cash for a tarmac road to his country mansion. Zuma has built both the road and the mansion at state expense and now plans to do still more at still greater public cost — yet nobody is calling for his resignation. It’s almost as if the hounds of the press are permitted to dash in Zuma’s direction, and bark a bit, but must under no circumstances bite. Whoever is holding them on the leash is in firm control.
Another excellent example is the way in which the impending National Conference is treated by the press. If Zuma were really as bad as his critics in the press sometimes suggest (and in reality he is far worse than that) then you would expect the press to support Zuma’s competitors. That is what they did in the run-up to Polokwane, after all. But on the “road to Mangaung”, as the press invariably put it (Mangaung being nearly at the centre of the country, almost all roads lead to it) the press is artfully refraining from taking sides. Instead, the contest is treated as one which is interesting, but not significant — very like a sports match. We are told, also, about who is speaking out against Zuma, or who is putting themselves forward for nomination as alternatives to Zuma’s nominees, but we are not told what their policies would be, or why they should be so deeply concerned to replace Zuma. The media wants us to be concerned about the leadership of the country — and to some extent, perhaps wants Zuma out — but goes to great lengths to refrain from saying why.
What the press is concerned with, therefore, is to prevent the public from becoming conscious or active. (In this, it is very like the press elsewhere in the world — in the United States, for examples, the Republican and Democratic Parties are united in their desire that the voters should pull the lever or push the button on the voting machines without ever wondering what they are actually voting for.) What is wanted, instead, is vague discontent, focused for preference upon various celebrity politicians who can be conveniently scapegoated by the press and thus replaced by other celebrity politicians who can again become the focus of future vague discontent. So long as the discontent does not become focussed, and particularly does not become concerned either with installing a politician not vetted by the people behind the press, or with recognising that the people behind the politicians are also the people behind the press, the ruling class in South Africa can go on fooling the public indefinitely.
It is a moot point whether this is actually possible. The bulk of the populace knows fairly well that conditions are bad and getting worse. They know what issues need to be addressed, and they know that nobody is actually addressing them. Therefore, they know that the politicians presented as their saviours are not their saviours; if they believed all that rubbish in 2007 they certainly don’t believe it now, and the ones who challenged the rubbish in 2007 are now well-equipped to say “We told you so”. By now, too, the sheer extent of socio-political inequality and the ever more obvious way in which big business dictates the public political agenda without the slightest pretense of consulting anyone except their employees in “civil society” organisations is upsetting just about everybody. Many people don’t understand what’s going on, but nearly everybody knows that the system is rigged against them and has a shrewd suspicion that someone is hiding behind that curtain.
And so it goes on; the rulers want to exploit the situation for their own benefit, while the rest of us hope somehow to pick up a few fragments of advantage from the disaster that is brewing, but don’t know how to do it.