How are things going?

2009-05-29 00:00

HOW are things going with the new Jacob Zuma government? It is of course too early to say. But there have been some perhaps significant pointers.

President Zuma started well. His inaugural speech was warm, inclusive, serious and humble; it was closer in spirit to Nelson Mandela than to Thabo Mbeki. And I hear through the grapevine that his handling of the African National Congress caucus and his chairing of meetings is evoking admiration, even from erstwhile semi-sceptics.

Having said that, one must plunge into the waves of issues and problems that are breaking against the shore of the new government. Hardly had Zuma expressed a new respect for the opposition than an unseemly row erupted between Helen Zille and the ANC. Zille has to be criticised for missing the mood of the moment, as well as for an insensitive choice of cabinet members. But the response to her by the ANC Youth League left the ANC leadership, as it admitted, “deeply embarrassed”; one has to say that unless some way of moderating the ANCYL is devised, the ANC will have to get used to being deeply embarrassed, and indeed to being something of a laughing-stock throughout the world. The threat by the Umkhonto Veterans to make the Western Cape ungovernable was also hardly edifying or sensible.

Then there were a number of minor crises. Minister Sbu Ndebele was given an expensive car, unwisely accepted it, and then, under pressure from Cosatu and the public (but not from Zuma), handed it back. This raised the issue of corruption, which is high on the Zuma agenda. There was the sudden attempt by Cosatu and others to block Vodacom’s listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. This raised another key issue, that of foreign investment. There was then the Cosatu threat of a major strike on behalf of highly qualified public servants, who do seem to have a strong case for salary increases.

So life has already been tricky for the new administration. And all this is before the larger issues have begun to be addressed. The cabinet has been expanded, one hopes wisely; it is going to take some time for the new departments and the newly subdivided departments to sort themselves out and to get going. Also of course a fair number of the ministers are new to the cabinet and will have to find their feet.

I talked earlier of waves of issues and problems. The interrelated issues of the economy, poverty, unemployment and the global economic meltdown constitute a positive tsunami — a tidal wave of almost insoluble problems which could drown us all if they aren’t handled very skilfully. How can one keep the economy alive and growing, retain and increase direct foreign investment, and at the same time facilitate the creation of new jobs and spread the country’s wealth more equitably? The task of answering these questions falls to a number of ministers and departments — those of Economic Development, Trade and Industry, Finance, Public Enterprises, Social Development, Energy, and Labour and Human Settlements, all of them overseen by the two ministers in the Presidency.

How successfully will all these ministers be able to work together? Their smooth co-operation is made somewhat more problematical by the fact that some of them lean towards neo-liberalism, while others are distinctly more socialist.

Nor are these the only urgent issues. There are huge problems in the country’s public health services, and the whole education system is generally recognised to be seriously inadequate. In both of these areas there were and still are big backlogs from the apartheid era; one cannot simply blame the previous ministers.

The big demand, coming understandably from every quarter, is for service delivery. The new government has vowed to put an end to idleness and incompetence among public servants, and this, if it can be even partly achieved, will make a large difference to everyone’s lives. But one must beware of unrealistic expectations: bringing every area of the country up to standard is a mammoth and vastly expensive task.

The outlook may seem gloomy. But maybe this is a time of hope.

The new ANC government has perhaps been chastened and energised by the fact that, for all its large majority, its support declined in eight out of the nine provinces. One has a sense that the new cabinet, strongly led by Zuma who is determined to prove himself, is taking its tasks very seriously.

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