A fall-out among populists

2008-02-11 00:00

As President Thabo Mbeki yesterday attempted to use his State of the Nation address to show he is still in charge, following an uncharacteristically subdued period since he was toppled as African National Congress leader, it is clear that South Africa’s politics has entered a new uncertain era.

Ahead of Mbeki’s address, Cosatu confidently issued 11 core demands it expected the president to include in his opening of Parliament speech. Jacob Zuma, the new ANC leader, not to be outdone, has been conspicuously trying to show he is in charge now. At the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, he presented himself as the new leadership face of the ANC. Mbeki watched and listened from home. The pro-Zuma ANC leadership is likely to step up its attacks on Mbeki’s and the government’s decisions, under the rubric that they do not conform to the ANC’s December 2007 national conference policy resolutions. Yet, the irony is that the new political era, heralded in by Zuma’s election as ANC president, may actually be just as disquieting for the ANC’s left — Cosatu and the South African Communist Party, which were the new ANC president’s most important backers — as it is for Mbeki.

If Cosatu and the SACP have been celebrating Zuma’s ANC presidency as a new era of dominance for the left, they may be in for a bitter disappointment. The truth is, with the election of Zuma as ANC president, South Africa has entered a populist political era, not unlike what happened in many African countries, following disillusionment with the first generation of post-liberation governments. An example of this variant of populist politics was when Frederick Chiluba, the former Zambian trade union leader, ousted the liberation leader Kenneth Kaunda as president of Zambia. In places such as Kenya and Uganda, populist politics have been almost the only political game in town.

Zuma’s left populist coalition consists of disgruntled grass-roots activists, trade unionists, socialists, unemployed youth, veteran guerrilla fighters, women’s lobbies, individual populist ANC leaders and organisations, supporters of the death penalty and virginity testing, black business tycoons, evangelicals and people who fell out with Mbeki. The organised groups within Zuma’s left populist coalition are Cosatu and the SACP on the one hand, two separate populist groups of the ANC Youth League and Women’s League, the Young Communist League and the MK veterans’ organisation on the other hand. Added to that is the loose alliance of populist individuals such as former National Intelligence Agency chief Billy Masetlha, former ANC Women’s League leader Winnie Madikizela Mandela and former defence force chief Siphiwe Nyanda. A last grouping is an assortment of business figures. The Shaik family, Vivian Reddy and Sandile Zungu rallied around the Zuma cause.

On the surface, the battle between Mbeki and his centrist lobby in government, and Zuma and his left populist one, over control of the ANC party apparatus appears to be dominating all ANC politics. The truth is that within Zuma’s odd left populist group, there is another simmering tussle. Although Zuma owes much to the SACP and Cosatu, he is also indebted to his many financial backers, which include quite a number of black economic empowerment tycoons, as well as the organised populist storm troopers, such as the ANC Youth League. For example, ahead of Mbeki’s State of the Nation address, ANC Youth League leader Fikile Mbalula, a leading populist, argued for a ban on the sale of alcohol on Sundays. The Youth League call was supported by another populist organisation which backed Zuma, the Young Communist League. Zuma’s own political instincts have, in the past, been decidedly populist. His call for the reopening of the debate over the death penalty is a case in point. Yet, as seen in Davos, Zuma is also bending over backwards to reassure the markets that he is as business friendly as Mbeki is and that economic policy will not be tinkered with.

So, the ANC president is trying to do a balancing act, which will need a lot of intricate footwork, between the left, right, business and the populist in-between supporters. At the same time he will be trying to win the battle with Mbeki over who is in charge of the ANC family. Then there is the small matter of putting together his battle plan for his upcoming corruption trial.

Mbeki may have more political manoeuvring space than he may have anticipated, although he cannot fudge the basic issues that led to his ousting as ANC leader — his autocratic and uncaring leadership style, his sluggish performance in dealing with poverty and unemployment, and his denial of deep-seated social problems, such as the ailing health and education systems. With only a year left on his presidential clock, resolving these issues must be at the heart of his remaining days in power, if he does not want to be remembered as a lame-duck president and still wants to have some influence over who succeeds him as South African president.

It is increasingly likely that there will be another ANC conference to elect a new leader to replace Zuma, who is likely to stumble over his legal hurdles, in spite of the agitation by his supporters to have his corruption case thrown out of court. In fact, it is now clear that there is a ferocious battle within Zuma’s brittle coalition over who should succeed him. Cosatu and the SACP, while calling for the case against Zuma to be dropped, are also manoeuvring to get ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe into the hot seat as the fall-back representative of the left in the event of Zuma’s fall. But others in that pro-Zuma left populist coalition are not planning to give Motlanthe the position of ANC president on a platter. They have their own ambitions. Nevertheless, if one unpacks the policies of South Africa’s opposition parties, most of them also appear decidedly populist in outlook. The turn to populism by the ANC under Zuma is likely to reinforce most of the opposition parties’ already populist views. Ominously, the service delivery record of most populist African and developing country governments elsewhere is generally quite poor.

• William M. Gumede is the author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC.

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