Author: Rev. Dr Rudi Buys Time of article published 06 July 2021

“Come to Nkandla!” reads the headline the day after the Constitutional Court delivered its landmark judgement for former President Jacob Zuma to be jailed for contempt.

The statement, firstly, was a call to Zuma to find refuge at the symbolic centre of the family and those who support him without compromise.

Secondly, the call rallies those groups who publicly rejected the findings of the court to arrive at Nkandla to deter those who will come to arrest him.

Thirdly, mixed with statements that the judgment represents a penultimate battle in a political war, the call may be read as a veiled threat to security forces to come and test the resolve and battle-readiness of what it casts as the regiments of Nkandla.

However, dramatisation aside, the vehement rejection of the court’s findings by the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association and others, begs the question of what deeper dynamic may drive the position they take, especially when the public response so overwhelming welcome the judgment.

Jacob Zuma addresses his supporters outside his home in Nkandla. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/African News Agency(ANA)

Most commentators read their reply as a challenge to the integrity of the constitution and our democracy at large, as they did with Zuma’s most recent comments. He not only attempted to discredit the Constitutional Court judges, but also likened the Zondo Commission to a “slaughterhouse”.

As a social and political dynamic, a useful way to make sense of the intensity of responses to the judgment on both sides of the public discourse, is to read it as a hidden struggle of and for a history – a struggle for or against remembrance and alienation.

This is a “theory of alienation”, where different sides in a public conflict struggle for the power to write the history of a society and so determine its heroes and villains. Differently put, it is a struggle between people and collectives to determine who will be remembered or forgotten as a hero of freedom or as a criminal.

Moreover, since Zuma serves as a symbol of who they are and what they contributed to our democracy, the struggle for a respected place in history also is the struggle of his allies. They, too, need to win the war to write history.

Alienation is a performance and a process, as much as an outcome. Those that fight to alienate another, and those that fight against such a campaign, are equally committed to, and engaged in the conflict.

Both sides use political projects either to alienate or overcome the threat. Four social and political projects underpin the struggle of alienation, which are useful to read public responses to the constitutional court judgement.

The project to make someone the lone scapegoat follows, with the counter-project to expose societal systems that do so as unjust. Then follows a project to erase his contributions and denounce him as an author of history, which is met with the counter-project to cast doubt on the intentions and accuracy of dominant narratives that serve his alienation.

A fourth project objectifies people as things of history, void of human relationships and agency, rather than active participants on equal terms with others, which project is met with the counter-project to demonstrate solidarity with others in groups that share the same mission.

Alarmingly, fact and fiction often blur in the struggle to win a war for history.

  • Rev. Dr Rudi Buys is the Executive Dean at the non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute, and editor of the African Journal of Non-Profit Higher Education.
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