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President Cyril Ramaphosa visits a shopping centre which was damaged after several days of looting in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: REUTERS/Rogan Ward
President Cyril Ramaphosa visits a shopping centre which was damaged after several days of looting in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: REUTERS/Rogan Ward

President Cyril Ramaphosa has a KwaZulu-Natal problem. But it is not the kind he thought he had when he announced that the protests of last week had an “ethnic mobilisation” element to them. Of course, his ethnic mobilisation theory is outlandish. 

The protests may have started in KwaZulu-Natal and the majority of the protestors in that province may be Zulu, but that hardly makes the issue one of “ethnic mobilisation”. 

Former president Jacob Zuma has been associated with narrow nationalism and ethnic divisions since his “Polokwane” days, but that does not mean we should use the same analytical tools all the time and without reason.  Screaming “ethnic mobilisation” simply because the protestors speak Zulu, in a Zulu-speaking region, is premature. 

Zulu may still be the most dominant language in Soweto, but that still does not mean Jabu stole a carton of milk at the Jabulani Mall Shoprite to appease his Zulu affinity. 

Ethnic and regional political issues are intertwined, primarily due to our geography and our spatial history. So we should be careful before we ascribe nefarious intentions to the actions of people in particular regions, or before we accuse protesters of tribal tendencies.

This assertion riled none other than political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki, just as it puzzled me.

But we saw Zuma in the press conference. Members of his team are from the Eastern Cape: Dali Mpofu and Mzwanele Manyi. Where does the president get this, that Zuma is mobilising Zulu people?” said Mbeki during an interview with the SABC.

Look at the letter, the article that [the DA’s] Helen Zille wrote recently about the … support that she got from Jacob Zuma, when she was premier of the Western Cape and Zuma was president of SA. Now on what basis does Ramaphosa then stand up and accuse Zuma of mobilising Zulu people?”

Fine, Ramaphosa did not directly say it is Zuma who was mobilising on ethnic lines. As Mbeki put it: “To me, it is very clear that the president was accusing Zuma of mobilising Zulu people.  I have worked with Zuma; we were in exile together. I have no idea where the president gets this. It is very dangerous for the ANC, after failing to solve economic problems … then to start spreading rumours, stories that there is tribalism in SA. Instead of solving the economic problems, he is creating scapegoats so the people of SA must start fighting among themselves.”

This does not mean that Ramaphosa does not have a Zulu problem. Here it is: KwaZulu-Natal takes the most delegates to ANC conferences, and they mostly supported Ramaphosa’s opponents during the 2017 Nasrec battle, where he won by a narrow margin. Gauteng, we might add, supported Ramaphosa at the last minute, having failed to build a credible, sellable alternative path for the ANC. Having accepted Ramaphosa as the best choice, it wooed David Mabuza's Mpumalanga to help Ramaphosa over the line. 

Back to KwaZulu-Natal. The ANC scored 56% in the 2016 local elections in eThekwini. This is SA’s third-biggest city after Joburg and Cape Town. Losing this municipality will mean the almost complete Zanufication of the ANC – losing the support of the urban centres and remaining in power, just like Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF, due to its rural base. (Detrimental in SA, as it is a rapidly urbanising country). Remember, the ANC lost control of Tshwane, the capital, as well as of Joburg and Nelson Mandela Bay in 2016. It dropped below 50% in Ekurhuleni, and needed a coalition partner to stay afloat. Holding on to eThekwini will be hard, considering basic political trends – the natural reduction in support over time – even before we factor in the impact of the events we saw last week. This is one of the bloodiest regions in our body politic. Politicians in Durban walk around with hit lists in their back pockets, 17 cellphones to manage their lives, from how to avoid counter-hits to distributing the latest tender. A hitman can be hired as easily we hail e-rides. A simple trip to the taxi rank gets you an inkabi – or hitman – as long as you have R5,000 to pay.

To add to Ramaphosa’s problem, health minister Zweli Mkhize has been wounded in the Digital Vibes matter. Already some believe he has presidential ambitions. He is from KwaZulu-Natal. How does Ramaphosa fire Mkhize without this reverberating negatively in Mkhize’s old stomping ground, KwaZulu-Natal, where he was once premier? I should mention that the chair of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, Sihle Zikalala, has the political IQ of an infantile goon. We saw him assault a protestor the other day. How primitive!

The biggest problem right now is that the ANC president has no influence in the party’s biggest region. The Zuma factor will die down, but this reality will come back to stare Ramaphosa in the face. Let’s hope he does not ascribe his own failures in running the ANC to an imaginary ethnic mobilisation when that happens. After all, we are still waiting for him to add political favour and meaning to his New Dawn gimmick.


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