Coalition politics

2009-06-10 00:00

THE big question hanging over our new administration is whether President Jacob Zuma will be able to keep the broad church of the African National Congress (ANC) together.

This is where his predecessor failed. Former president Thabo Mbeki achieved some remarkable successes. He gave this new country 36 successive quarters of sustained economic growth for the first time in our history; he built up a multiracial middle-class about four times the size of the predominantly white middle class we had in 1994; and he established a significant welfare system that provides a quarter of all households with their biggest single source of income.

But he was adjudged a failure and thrown out by his own party — because of his inability to hold the broad church of the ANC together and take it with him in the policy direction he and a closed circle of advisers had decided to take the country.

From its origins, the ANC has really been a coalition of people from all points of the ideological compass who came together for the common purpose of ending apartheid and liberating oppressed communities.

During the struggle years this amorphous grouping was held together by a common spirit of commitment and idealism. But once the objective was achieved, the glue holding those disparate elements together began to weaken. It also began to change. With the mission accomplished, the spirit of idealism and comradeship faded and the ANC simply became a political vehicle to carry people to power — and the patronage that comes with power.

Inevitably, the different elements within the coalition began to compete to gain control of the vehicle, to determine the ideological direction in which it should go and which faction would reap the major benefits.

This is where Mbeki failed. He was never an inclusivist. He was what George W. Bush called “the decider”. A highly intelligent but intellectually domineering person who disliked being challenged and who surrounded himself with loyalists and courtiers. He set the policy line and those who disagreed with him were cut out of his circle.

This was no way to hold a broad coalition together. Mbeki made enemies, particularly on the left where he treated his critics in the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu with disdain. And when he dismissed Zuma as his deputy following the Shabir Shaik trial, his enemies found a champion for their cause and were able to rise up and oust Mbeki.

The question now is whether Zuma can do better. Part of the ANC has already broken away as a result of the leadership clash to form the Congress of the People (Cope), but what is left remains as broad a spectrum as ever — ranging from the SACP and Cosatu on the left to millionaire businessmen such as Tokyo Sexwale, Mathews Phosa and Cyril Ramaphosa, as well as Mbeki’s financial mastermind Trevor Manuel. Can he keep them all happy and contained inside the tent?

Zuma is certainly going to try. His strategy throughout has been to try to please everyone, to be all things to all people. His new cabinet reflects this: he has enlarged it to make it more inclusive. His inaugural speech and last week’s State of the Nation address were likewise placatory, conciliatory, designed to project a spirit of geniality and warmth, embracing everyone.

As president I think Zuma is going to be the diametric opposite of Mbeki. He is not sophisticated and urbane like Mbeki. He is a rough diamond. But where Mbeki could be intellectually arrogant and uncomfortable in crowds, disconnected from his people in a way, not tactile as most Africans are, Zuma is warm and friendly, and very much a man of the people, who can press flesh and sing and dance and wow the crowds in a way Mbeki never could.

His leadership style, I think, will match this. He will not be “the decider”. He will run a more collegiate administration. Zuma’s political instincts strike me as being drawn more from African traditionalism that from any Western ideology. I picture him in the role of a traditional leader, drawing his subjects and counsellors around him, hearing them all out and then distilling from it all a consensus decision. Which by definition will be centrist.

On the face of it, this appears to be an ideal way to keep a broad coalition together. Everyone will be given a sense of being included in the decision-making processes of government. But I foresee problems, too.

The ANC has always been a fractious organisation, but it is much more so now that the idealism has faded and the glue holding its disparate elements together is weakening by the day. It is a less comradely outfit, driven more by greed and personal ambition. Factionalism is rampant. The economic times are tough and the problems facing the Zuma government are enormous. They will lead to frustrations, and as Ken Owen noted in a trenchant analysis in the Financial Mail the other day, the frustrations that will come with inevitable failures of governance are bound to cause ideological friction within the coalition.

Moreover, Zuma has set himself up for a crisis of expectations. He has come to power on a populist platform, promising jobs for the unemployed, homes for the homeless and money for the poor. He will not be able to deliver on any of those promises, and a backlash seems inevitable. Already the unions, whose own leaders are under pressure from the raised expectations of their members, are making threatening noises about “uncontrollable strikes.”

Will it be enough simply to continue trying to keep everyone and everything in balance, to rule by perpetual consensus, to be all things to all people all the time? Or will that lead to inertia? And is inertia sustainable in a dynamic society such as South Africa?

I suspect not. South Africa needs innovation to break out of some of the structural blockages that are impeding its growth potential, such as the dislocation between our desperate level of unemployment and our desperate shortage of skills. But the ANC is not capable of such innovation. Its capacity for innovative thinking, for bold new leadership initiatives, will be paralysed by the overriding need to preserve unity, to move only at the pace of perpetual consensus.

Which brings me back to a recurring theme of this column. I sense that our politics is moving slowly but inexorably through a second transitional phase. I doubt that the factional nature of the ANC is sustainable in the long run. It has already lost ground: it lost 33 National Assembly seats at the last election, it lost the Western Cape and it lost percentage support in seven of the other eight provinces.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Alliance is consolidating the support of the alienated minorities, while Cope has opened a breach in the majority black constituency.

What is likely to unfold over the coming decade is a slow flaking away of more elements of a coalition whose role as a liberation movement is over and which is increasingly going to find itself unable to adapt to the needs of governing a dynamic emerging country with some tough structural problems inhibiting its huge potential. A realignment lies ahead.

• Allister Sparks is an independent commentator.

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