The New York Times sure has a hard time of getting it right. Its recent Monday article on the ANC Congress is replete with erroneous comparisons and lightweight political analysis.
The beginning of the article is a good place to start: The author alleges the ANC conference is "not unlike an American presidential primary". How so? In a US presidential primary, candidates compete in state contests for delegates whom then meet and vote at a national convention. The ANC conference is the culmination of this process, not its beginning as the primary comparison alludes. It is closer to Republican or Democratic Party convention than anything, but primary season it is not.
The writer then says incredibly, "But even at its quirkiest, American presidential politics has seldom been like this. More telling, never has South Africa's."
Excuse me? How about the Republican vote stealing gangs led by George Pataki in Florida. Or voter suppression in Ohio? Does anyone remember the Clinton impeachment fiasco? Talk about quirky. And then there was the Gingrich-led Republican shutdown of the federal government. Ok maybe it narrowly misses "presidential politics" but not by much, after all they were trying to overthrow a president, which they pretty much did with the presidential coup authorizing G W's selection. And by the way did the writer mean by "More telling, never has South Africa's" presidential season been like this? That's either the biggest understatement of the year or the stupidest thing ever written. Have they forgotten that this is only the second free party convention process in South Africa's history? After all apartheid did kind of put a hamper on things. But if even that isn't enough, historically it's inaccurate. In the late 1940s the ANC had another fierce internal debate when the "Africanists" refused to adopt the Freedom Charter and went on to form the PAC.
Then in the fifth paragraph, they completely mischaracterize the politics of the top contenders for ANC office:
Never have such polar opposites vied for power. Mr. Mbeki, the distant, pipe-puffing, capitalist intellectual, was schooled in British universities during exile under apartheid. Mr. Zuma, a rough-edged, unschooled and occasionally socialist populist whose scant education was gained in an apartheid prison, is as charismatic as Mr. Mbeki is cold.
Through all the talk about style and attitude, the central idea here is that Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma's politics are polar opposite. Nothing could be further from the case. Both come out of the same political schools and have a shared ideological history. Both accept and articulate the main policy and political aims articulated by the ANC. More than that: they are its authors. While the style is different, at least on a collective policy level, the substance is the same.
The attempt to characterize Mbeki as a "capitalist" intellectual flies in the face of his own pronouncements and writings should anyone take the time to study them. One might begin with his speech to the special South African Communist Party convention two years ago. What kind of capitalist intellectual has called the ANC's alliance with the SACP and COSATU "an objective need created by history?"
Jacob Zuma too comes out of an ideological collective that allows him critically access the objective patterns shaping the political conjecture of the moment. At a recent SACP meeting, I heard him lecture with great eloquence and insight on the need for Communists to concentrate their efforts on "strategic" sectors of the working class. "There are unions, and then there are unions" he said.
Here I am not arguing that the both politicians are the same. Clearly there are differences, yet one suspects that they are more matters of degree and not of kind as the paperweight analysis of the New York Times would have us believe.