AN OLD Swahili proverb reflects South Africa today: Wapiganapo tembo nyasi huumia – “When elephants fight, the grass gets hurt.” It refers to the damaging consequences for weaker individuals and groups in the midst of stronger forces, such as warring government officials and leaders.
Every day brings a new scandal in the clash of powerful factions in the governing African National Congress. One component is President Jacob Zuma’s camp of patronage politics, his friends the Guptas and other cronies, playing dirty tricks to keep themselves at the feeding troughs of state money and who don’t care about the liberation movement’s proud heritage; on another side are those trying to rescue the ANC’s moral standing as the nation’s saviour – various Struggle stalwarts, young people fed up with its failure to deliver on its multiple promises, embattled finance minister Pravin Gordhan, and others.
White minority groups such as the Afrikaners, Jews, Greeks and others are aware that all the elephants are strong and will not easily succumb. And knowing how badly hurt the grass can get in this fight, they are tempted to sit quietly on the sidelines, fearing that if they back the wrong side they will pay for it later. A similar stance was taken during apartheid, when many members of fearful minorities chose silence rather than publicly opposing immoral government behaviour.
While the ANC elephants fight, millions of ordinary South Africans are getting more desperate, without jobs, proper schools and other basic needs.
It is often hard to tell the good guys from the bad. Aside from the familiar major figures of the older generation, there are also younger people such as Mcebo Dlamini, an organiser of the campaign on Monday to occupy the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg, Luthuli House, with the message of getting rid of Zuma. Many people applauded the group, though it failed in its aim after being blocked by Zuma supporters amid threats of violence. But this is the same man who, as Wits University’s Student Representative Council president last year, expressed admiration for Hitler: “What I love about Hitler is his charisma and his capabilities to organise people. We need more leaders of such calibre. I love Adolf Hitler.”
And there is Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, who is no longer an ANC member after his expulsion in 2012 for “sowing divisions” and bringing it into “disrepute”, but remains tied to the struggle over its soul. Some people still say his expulsion was a gigantic blunder by the ANC. A few years ago he was laughed off as a buffoon. People said: “He couldn’t even pass his woodwork course in school.” Since then he has become a canny politician leading a growing political party and a major player in national politics.
When Malema condemns corruption, calls for Zuma to resign and demands the Guptas leave the country, he evokes cheers. But when he spouts anti-white rhetoric and says he wants to nationalise the banks and mines and expropriate land without compensation, and his party members behave like thugs, he evokes dread, particularly among urban blacks and whites – especially minority groups.
One member of the older generation who has been a disappointment is Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Once touted as the man to take over from Zuma, he has been disgracefully silent while the president rapes the country. Ramaphosa looked undignified last Thursday in parliament when he triumphantly held up new government-sponsored, flavoured condoms intended to replace the older model which has been distributed until now. Meanwhile, South Africa is hurting, waiting for a real leader to emerge.
It is likely the battle between the elephants will continue for some time before one side wins or sanity prevails. The question is how to protect the grass – the citizens – while it is going on.
(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)