Give the man a Bells — or should that be a cuppa tea?

If our dear president drank infusions stronger than his preferred rooibos tea, I guess you would give the man a Bell‘s. Since tea was the preferred metaphor for Gwede Mantashe‘s recent attack on his predecessor, Kgalema Motlanthe, for daring to suggest that the alliance was a busted flush, let‘s stick with tea.

Zuma should be given another cuppa of his favourite tipple for his weekend confession that his party is more important than the country. It deserves our applause for two reasons.

First, it is an honest admission of what has long been known. At least, at the level of a straightforward explanation, it makes otherwise incomprehensible decisions understandable.

Think of borrowing money to pay off the army of 3 million civil servants and state-owned company workers above-inflation wage increases and ballooning our debt costs in the process.

So never mind that “fees must fall”. At the rate we‘re spending on salaries and social grants, and buying votes, there won‘t be any money left over for much else besides.

Just consider one startling fact: the recent budget statement revealed that the costs of servicing our current debt — R402-billion — is double what we spend on education, and is the biggest item on our budget.

But, as the president reminded us at the weekend, the party‘s needs count for more than any long-term considerations.

The second reason to congratulate Zuma is for his form.

A few weeks ago in Cape Town, I shared a platform with COPE president Mosiuoa Lekota.

He recounted an incident when Zuma, the ANC chairman at the time, fired him as premier of the Free State. His offence? Dismissing a member of his cabinet who had been stealing money.

When Lekota advised the ANC high command that he had acted well within his constitutional rights, Zuma told him: “The ANC is more important than the constitution, the constitution is only there to regulate matters.”

The latter statement of Zuma was made in November 1996, more than a decade before he became president of South Africa.

So Zuma deserves full marks for consistency. Even if he is consistently and disastrously wrong.

This column is being written from New York, on the day Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu arrives here. His relationship with US President Barack Obama is about as warm as Zuma‘s with Public Protector Thuli Madonsela.
Anyway, Netanyahu is heading to Washington in an attempt to heal their breach. The Wall Street Journal printed an article in anticipation of the event.

Headlined “The Palestinian People Ask: Where is Israel‘s FW de Klerk?”, the writer, Palestine Liberation Organisation secretary-general Saeb Erekat, laments the absence of a leadership on the Israeli side that is as committed as De Klerk was “to a just peace”.

Doubtlessly, many Israelis inquire: “Where is the Palestinian Mandela?”

I also couldn‘t help but think that it was just as well Erekat did not try this line out in South Africa. Here, the stranglehold of political correctness and the invented history we offer up these days disallows any consideration for the role played by De Klerk and his colleagues.

But the point about De Klerk‘s dramatic U-turn in favour of democracy back in 1990 was its spectacular embrace of the concept of placing country ahead of party. As the former leader of the opposition Frederik van Zyl Slabbert noted at the time of De Klerk‘s famous speech in parliament: “It was a comprehensive sell-out of everything the National Party held near and dear since 1948.”

Mandela — with whom De Klerk was so uneasily enjoined in the partnership that brought peace and democracy to these shores — was provided with even more dramatic examples and lessons in placing the national interest ahead of narrow partisan concerns.

But observing from here the high-profile battle for the presidential nomination of the Republican Party is at least a reminder that the less attractive features of South African politics find expression in one of the largest and most established democracies in the world.

We might yearn for the lost days and fading moral example of Nelson Mandela, but what must thoughtful Republicans think has happened to the party that produced Abraham Lincoln, or more recently Ronald Reagan?

If the current Republican fight resembles a circus that might be because its front-ranked candidate, property mogul Donald Trump, resembles the carnival barker, to quote one local source.

But if he doesn‘t wrest the nomination, the next two rising candidates currently wrestle with exposed problems that would strike any observer of South African politics as distinctly familiar.

Florida senator Marco Rubio, who is rising in the polls, is having to explain how he used his official party credit card for personal expenses — from paving his driveway to visiting an upscale barber. It all sounds rather South African.
Readers might recall our singular premier of the Northern Cape, Sylvia Lucas. Last year, in a 10-week feeding frenzy, she managed to blow R50000 on a government credit card for fast food and groceries.

Another top-ranked Republican contender and political novice, the surgeon Ben Carson, is in trouble for allegedly exaggerating aspects of his curriculum vitae.

His medical qualifications are not in doubt. But all sorts of stories he told of a childhood mired in violence and his encounters at a military academy are now open to serious doubt.

Other than being black, Dr Carson would hardly identify with the ANC in South Africa. He is a rock-ribbed conservative.

But his defence to the probing of the media came straight from our ruling party‘s playbook. “Don‘t lie about me,” he admonished the media.

In fact, as The New York Times observed at the weekend, deep disregard for the “hostile media” has “allowed candidates to duck, dodge and ridicule assertions from [media] outlets they dislike”.

At least none of these candidates has threatened to impose a media tribunal on pesky press critics.
But of course that would be unconstitutional in the US.

And in America, unlike South Africa, it is impossible to get elected, never mind become president, by trashing the constitution. Or to suggest the party is more important.

This article first appeared in The Times