Polokwane crossroads

2007-12-15 00:00

As the country approached the watershed 1994 elections, for many both at home and abroad anticipation was mixed with apprehension. In the event, the moderating influence of leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu held sway, and as the political climate stabilised and Thabo Mbeki succeeded to the presidency, the nation seemed set on the high road towards emergence as one of Africa’s most secure, flourishing and influential democracies. In the next few days, however, as the African National Congress chooses its new leader, and hence the heir-presumptive to the state presidency, the uneasy sense that the nation may again be at a political crossroads has once more taken hold.

To many outsiders (and indeed, to many within the ANC and the tripartite alliance), the need to take a decision on leadership has precipitated a crisis that is symptomatic of the condition of the party itself. Commentators have observed that with the nation moving beyond the struggle years, the ANC has lost its way and is now deeply divided. As it decides whether to continue under Thabo Mbeki (which the party’s constitution allows) or replace him with Jacob Zuma, there is far more to the choice than the difference in style between the two men — Mbeki with the image of the coldly remote intellectual internationalist, Zuma the exuberant African populist. Both have seemingly serious flaws. As one analyst remarked recently, it seems extraordinary that a leader who has presided over the economic successes enjoyed by this country since 1994 should face dismissal by his party, but Mbeki has made enough curious decisions to lose the confidence of many of his erstwhile supporters. There are, moreover, many who feel that post-1994 transformation has yielded precious little in the way of material benefits to themselves, and for them Zuma’s populist rhetoric has huge appeal.

Again to the outsider, Zuma’s flaws are even more manifest than those of Mbeki — his questionable personal morality, his dubious financial acumen, his susceptibility to the influence of such associates as the convicted Shabir Shaik. With serious corruption allegations against him still not resolved, he has often and again been written off as a contender for party leadership and yet has now won even the unlikely support of the ANC Women’s League. To some critics, Zuma’s chameleon-like ability to pitch the right appeal to a diversity of interest groups indicates a lack of real principle and, indeed, the whole contest has focused on personality to the virtual exclusion of policy.

This lack of clear and consistent policies makes the prospect of a Zuma victory all the more worrisome. Much of the country’s infrastructure is starting to fray at the edges — service delivery is now notoriously poor, power outages threaten to become normal, potholed roads are visibly decaying. Glancing ever to the north, local Afro-pessimists see much to confirm their cynicism: instead of being the vibrantly successful model for Africa, this country could easily succumb to the supposed continental malaise if shallow populist demands prevail.

Of more immediate concern is the effect of a Zuma win on the government of the country for the remainder of Mbeki’s presidential term. As Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business CEO Andrew Layman wrote on this page yesterday, the ship of state is slow to turn, but the prospects of a lame duck presidency, or even a premature change, are worrisome. The nation is still fragmented, with many minority interest groups that feel insecure and even threatened. Constitutionally it does not follow that the leader of the ANC necessarily succeeds as president of the country, but there is a continuing need for stable, balanced and wise leadership from the top.

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