“In a country where more than 80% of the people describe themselves as Christians and two-thirds believe that the Bible, as the word of God, should be understood literally, President Jacobs Zuma’s warning was taken to heart.” Said mr Gareth van Onselen, DA Executive Director of Special Project in a media release.
“When you vote for the ANC,” mr Zuma told an election rally of the party faithful in the Eastern Cape Province on February 5, “you are choosing to go to heaven. When you don’t vote for the ANC, you should know that you are choosing that man who carries a for… who cooks people.”
The DA said that in case anyone should think this a mere “figure of speech”, as his officials later tried to claim, the president, who is a lay pastor, went on to drive his message home: “When you are carrying an ANC membership card, you are blessed. When you get up there, there are different cards used, but when you have an ANC card, you will be let through to go to heaven.”
The DA continued in the media release to say that if, perchance anyone were foolish enough to leave the ruling party to set up a rival splinter, as the Congress of the People (COPE) recently did, “you will struggle until you die,” mr Zuma proclaimed. “The ancestors of this land… will all turn their backs on you.”
As South Africa gears up for municipal elections, due to be held by May, the claim that God is firmly on the side of the ruling party did not go down well with non-ANC supporters.
The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, promptly demanded an apology. It described mr Zuma’s remarks as “incendiary, an act of shameless political and religious blackmail”. It “smacked” of the same hubris demonstrated by mr Zuma’s claim during the 2009 general election campaign that the ANC would continue to rule “until Jesus comes”, the alliance said. Even the South African Council of Churches, which is normally sympathetic to the former liberation party’s cause, said the president’s comments were “dangerous”.
South Africans are proud of their 1996 constitution, widely regarded as one of the most progressive in the world. During the struggle against apartheid, the ANC came to see itself, and was seen, as the only true representative of the disenfranchised black majority. Today it regards itself not so much as a political party as the embodiment of the nation. Elections, in which the party usually wins around two-thirds of the vote, are seen as confirming that status. Mr Zuma frequently refers to the ANC as “the parliament of the people”, as if its decisions were more important than those of the elected national assembly.
During the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, the assembly was treated as a mere rubber stamp. Shortly after the 2009 election that brought mr Zuma to power, Gwede Mantashe, the ANC secretary-general, urged the new parliament to be “robust and not be afraid of holding cabinet ministers to account”. But on the rare occasions that a few brave souls have tried, they have been ousted from their posts. Most MPs are aware that they must toe the party line or risk finding themselves banished from the list of election candidates. The same fear underpins the ANC’s system of “cadre deployment”, under which loyal party members are given plum posts and critical ones sacked. Mr Zuma has repeatedly promised to reform the system, but has never quite got around to it.
Although they give nominal support to democracy, most Africans continue to hold a deferential view of political authority, according to a recent study of 19 democratic countries on the continent carried out by Robert Mattes of the University of Cape Town. South Africa scored particularly poorly on questions relating to accountability. Barely one in three citizens thought that MPs should hold the president to account. Fewer than 40% agreed that “the government is like an employee, the people should be the bosses”, most preferring the view that “people are like children, the government should take care of them like a parent”. Only 10% thought that voters should hold MPs to account, whereas as many as four out of ten believed that presidents should be able to “decide everything”.