This week, both President Jacob Zuma and African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general Gwede Mantashe appeared to rebuke Planning Minister Trevor Manuel in public for his comments that the government "should no longer say it’s apartheid’s fault" when addressing service delivery problems.
Manuel’s statement, made publicly at a government leadership summit, was always going to elicit a strong reaction.
Several times over the past year Zuma has blamed apartheid for situations under the purview of government. In an interview on Talk Radio 702, he defended his government’s inaction during the Limpopo textbook crisis by saying: "You are dealing with a teacher that comes from the Verwoerdian system ... his or her attitude towards education still needs to be worked on.... We are not dealing with a problem of today; we are solving a problem of centuries."
For Manuel, as a Cabinet minister, to disagree with that sentiment and then to explain his point in follow-up interviews was an act of political bravery. It was predictable, given Zuma’s past comments, that he would not agree with Manuel. That the latter appeared to take him on in public meant the president had to respond in kind.
On Wednesday, speaking at a memorial service for Chris Hani, Zuma said that to say apartheid was no longer a major reason for the country’s problems "was a mistake, to say the least", adding that "it is impossible that within 20 years you could undo the damage of centuries".
Mantashe was also at the ceremony and, as a political ally of Zuma, was always likely to provide his own justification. But he appeared to take aim at the white middle classes with his argument.
"When did the Holocaust happen ... why is it treated as if it is still fresh? Because it was a major injustice to a group of people," Mantashe said.
Explaining the concept of economic apartheid, he said that for a white graduate, "you are likely to have an uncle in the furniture business. If you are a young black graduate, you are unlikely to have an uncle in the furniture business, and so you must struggle to get into the labour market."
But on Thursday morning, Mantashe was careful to say this did not mean government officials could blame apartheid when they failed to perform their duties — an apparent move to head off claims that the ANC was using apartheid as a fig leaf to hide its own failings.
While there is merit in the debate on whether apartheid will always be with us in some shape or form, modern-day political dynamics are at play here too.
In the day-to-day politics of the country, for the ANC, as the government, to blame apartheid for the country’s woes is politically useful. But it may also want this issue to dominate next year’s elections.
While the Democratic Alliance is likely to focus on service delivery, the ANC may want to point to the everyday lives of most South Africans as proof that apartheid is still with us. It may hope the DA falls into the trap of publicly agreeing with Manuel, whereafter it could accuse the opposition of ignoring the plight of most voters.
Written by: Stephen Grootes
Picture credit: Business Day
• Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter. This article was published on Business Day.