The good and the bad

2007-12-27 00:00

The African National Congress’s Polokwane conference has thrown the country into a state of political uncertainty that will require some deft handling by the new leadership if the great gains of our first 13 years of democracy are not to start unravelling.

Not all the news is bad. The upside is that Polokwane turned out to be a remarkable demonstration of grass-roots democracy. South Africa’s image in the world is of a de facto one-party state, given the overwhelming political dominance of the ANC, yet the ordinary members of that party, acting through the branch delegates they sent to Polokwane, have thrown out the entire top leadership of that party.

It is as comprehensive a regime change as any general election could produce in a multi-party system, with the wholesale rejection of a president and his administration who only three years ago won a landslide victory with a 70% parliamentary majority and control of all nine provincial governments.

That speaks volumes of the “power of the people”, of the fact that the South African electorate, new though it may be to the nuances of democratic politics, is not a flock of electoral sheep to be taken for granted.

The people may be loyal to their party and admiring of the role of its heroes in liberating them from the bondage of apartheid, but if the leaders of that movement lose touch with them once they are in power, if they become an aloof and disdainful elite as the Thabo Mbeki administration has done, the party rank-and-file will throw them out unceremoniously. This is immensely reassuring, for it means South Africa will never become slave to the “Big Man” syndrome that has been the bane of so many African countries.

As the delegates gathered in Polokwane last week, one group carried a banner that said it all. “We are not Zimbabweans”, it declared. It tells us, too, that the ANC is not as monolithic as it appears. It is an alliance of many elements within which a high degree of political contestation takes place, and the elements of which will gradually begin to flake away from the parent body and go their separate ways in response to the diverging interests of the new class-based constituencies taking shape within our body politic.

In other words, Polokwane marks the start of a new process of gradual political realignment that will take South Africa, eventually, towards a more conventional system of multi-party democracy with periodic regime changes taking place through the ballot box. It is an important milestone in our maturing democracy.

But if that is the good news, there is also plenty about what happened in Polokwane that is worrisome in the short term. It is no small thing to cast aside a president who has won worldwide acclaim in financial and investment circles, and replace him with a populist who may soon stand trial for corruption.

There will be great uncertainties about the future leadership of this country throughout most of 2008 — and there is nothing investors dislike more than uncertainty.

Jacob Zuma has an awesome task ahead of him. The first thing he needs to do is to try to reunite the deeply divided ANC, but how is he to do that when repeated court actions involving him will keep exploding like emotional time-bombs in the months ahead?

The likelihood of Zuma being prosecuted went almost unmentioned at the Polokwane conference, yet even as the delegates prepared to vote, papers were lodged with the Constitutional Court detailing serious new allegations of corruption and fraud that the prosecution wants to bring against the new ANC president.

Zuma’s lawyers have gone to the Constitutional Court to seek leave to appeal against four Appeal Court judgments that allow the prosecution access to this new evidence. The appeal move prevented the National Prosecuting Authority from recharging Zuma before Polokwane, but it had the effect of making the serious new allegations public through the lodging of the documents.

Depending on the outcome of the Constitutional Court hearings, Zuma may face more serious charges than those that sent Shabir Shaik to prison for 15 years.

The Constitutional Court hearings are likely to take place during the first court term of 2008 —between February 15 and March 30.

If Zuma is charged, the case could be placed on the KwaZulu-Natal High Court roll around April or May. It is a fair assumption, given the defence team’s strategy throughout this long saga, that proceedings would begin with an application to quash the charges on the grounds that it has taken too long to bring Zuma to court. So it will be around mid-year before any trial can begin, after which the case itself could drag on for the rest of the year and even into 2009. A year of massive distraction for the new leader and a turbulent background against which to try to reunite his fractured party.

Zuma’s other great difficulty will be how to reassure the business community — a task he has already begun — while at the same time meeting the expectations he has aroused among the poor with his populist rhetoric. Populism is always a dangerous game, for it can all too easily end up producing a crisis of expectations when delivery falls short.

Zuma is telling businessmen at home and investors abroad that there will be no major changes in economic policy if he becomes president. He says the policies are those of the ANC and that he is therefore committed to them. Yet for months he has been telling his followers that the country needs more “pro-poor” policies. His allies in Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP) have been supporting him for that reason. They will expect delivery.

So how is he going to walk that tightrope?

One way would be to pay back his alliance partners with jobs more than policy changes; for example, by including the likes of SACP leader Blade Nzimande in the cabinet as Minister of Education, a position he is eminently qualified to fill, while giving the key economic portfolios to the kind of people business would find reassuring, such as Tokyo Sexwale, Mathews Phosa, or, best of all, to mend fences with Trevor Manuel and keep him as finance minister.

On the policy front, there is much that can be done to help the poor without disrupting the basic macroeconomic policies now in place which are delivering healthy growth.

Improved service delivery is what is most urgently needed — improved public health services, improved education and skills training, better transportation systems in rural areas and for the urban poor, faster land redistribution and some immediate symbolic gestures such as the introduction of a basic income grant.

Above all, Zuma would do well to choose a cabinet of merit that can deliver and a team of experienced advisers who are prepared to challenge and warn him, rather than to surround himself with loyal courtiers as Mbeki did. Running a successful administration rather than pandering to political ideologues is what will save him from the wrath of a constituency whose expectations he has so vigorously aroused.

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