A month after the governing African National Congress (ANC) lost heavily in South Africa’s municipal elections, the party is at war with itself. From my perspective, the struggle is between democratic reformers who want to restore public confidence in the ANC and win back lost voters, and those around President Jacob Zuma who are seeking to preserve their patronage networks based on publicly owned enterprises and sleazy contracts. An effort, apparently orchestrated by the president’s allies, if not the president himself, is underway to remove Pravin Gordhan, the well-regarded treasury minister. (Gordhan has sought to introduce a wide range of reforms in the publicly owned enterprises.) But, the heart of the matter is not the treasury minister or government contracts but rather control of the ANC in a period of leadership change. President Zuma must leave office in 2019, if not forced out earlier.
Sometimes a comedian captures well where a society or an institution is in a period of political turmoil. ‘Evita Bezuidenhout’ has done so in An Open Letter to the ANC published in the Daily Maverick. Evita is a character created by Pieter-Dirk Uys, an actor probably most famous for his performances in drag. In the days of National Party domination, her performances were a send-up of the absurdities of apartheid. Now, she has turned to the ANC. Her letter is full of sly jokes and is thoroughly entertaining. But, she also makes serious points:
- “‘What do people think of when they see a fat politician in parliament?’ They immediately think of a thin voter. And many ANC voters are poorer and thinner than before.”
- With respect to the municipal elections, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) performed well, and the mass of voters “proved they have learnt a lot in the last 21 years.”
- She won’t leave the ANC because many in the party “are still working hard to keep the country more or less balanced.” She will not abandon the ANC to “ambitious and charismatic comrades focused on getting the most for themselves… They are ruthless and successful because they know that as loyalty to the president is paramount, no one will dare challenge their thievery in the public arena.”
- She closes by recalling that during the transition to non-racial democracy, the National Party under F.W. de Klerk “did something no one would expect.” She calls on the ANC to do the same now. Perhaps she is hinting at ANC “recall” of Zuma from the presidency – but she is not explicit.
Drag performers are popular satirists in South Africa, with a long tradition of outrageous criticism that is tolerated by the powers that be. Like Evita, the Australian Barry Humphries character ‘Dame Edna” is also popular. Pieter-Dirk Uys, who is openly gay, is also widely celebrated in South Africa for his role in popular HIV/AIDS education.