African polls a test for SA’s foreign policy

2011-01-02 14:31

This is going to be a year of election ­campaigning.

For the local government elections?

Well yes ... those too. There will be at least 17 national elections due this year across Africa – several of them litmus tests for ­President Jacob Zuma’s foreign policy dexterity.

But for many – arguably most – South Africans the election campaign holding their attention this year will be the year-long manoeuvring and ­campaigning ahead of elective conferences not only for the governing ANC itself but also for its allies – Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party.

In the ANC, Zuma presides over a succession ­debate in which he is the player.

How it is handled in the run-up to the party’s ­historic 100th national conference (but its 53rd elective conference) in Mangaung, Free State, will demonstrate whether he can continue his remarkable revival of last year – as state president and as head of a still-contested ANC.

The ANC Youth League’s electoral conference later this year will provide a sneak preview of how the forces are shaping up in the succession debate.

If Youth League president Julius Malema retains his position, the league will be the frontline troops in efforts to dethrone Zuma at Mangaung.

After two years in office Zuma must now be judged on how effectively he governs.

The outcome of the local elections will be the first clear sign from the electorate on whether it still endorses a Zuma-led ANC.

The municipal poll will indicate whether Zuma’s second term ambitions in the party and the state resonate with the ANC voters.

Despite the growing discontent in the ANC-supporting constituencies, the party’s challenge in the local government polls is not holding on to power.

With no credible alternative on its left or its right, the ANC’s challenge is regaining credibility and ­legitimacy among the voters.

For Zuma, whose stated aim is the construction of a developmental state, credibility and legitimacy are the key deliverables.

Zuma’s ANC needs buy-in from communities if its many policy initiatives are to go beyond being good ideas.

Whether it is support for expanded public works programmes, housing schemes, early learning child care co-operatives or community food ­gardens in rural areas and effective community policing forums, the ANC’s plans rely on community buy-in.

And unless ANC councillors are credible and ­govern efficiently and effectively, the party’s efforts to construct the local state will flounder – with ­disastrous consequences for Zuma’s efforts to do things better and differently.

The sorry state of many ANC branches does not bode well for the party’s efforts to clean up its act.

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe has promised a new approach to choosing local candidates, but voter turn-out and the scale of the ANC’s victory during the poll will show whether it has managed to convince weary communities, many of which have turned to violence and anarchy to voice their unhappiness.

But 2011 is not only a challenge for the governing party.

If last year was a bleak year for opposition parties, their prospects this year look worse.

The chaos of its December almost-congress is a harbinger of things to come for the Congress of the People.

The absence of any party machine, branches and activists to drive an election campaign is likely to see a slow agonising death.

Things look less bleak for DeZille (the recently-integrated Democratic Alliance and Independent Democrats). But its chances of making inroads into ANC strongholds remain bleak.

The two parties are likely to remain the party of choice for South Africa’s racial minorities, which does little for either leader’s long-term ability to break through their self-imposed glass ceilings.

The combined efforts of (Western Cape premier) Helen Zille and (Western Cape Social Development MEC) Patricia de Lille will make for exciting media coverage in Western Cape and small dorpies, but it is ­unlikely to break the back of the ANC’s formidable election machine.

The Inkatha Freedom Party looks set to bleed even more if the recent spate of by-election defeats in KwaZulu-Natal are anything to go by.

Year 2011 will also put paid to the idea of a grand opposition coalition against the ANC.

The year will also send a strong message that the opposition needs to go back to the drawing board if it is serious about dislodging the ANC from power.

Beyond the election hustings, this year will see the Zuma government’s capacity to drive economic and social development coming under close scrutiny.

Reorganisation of State-owned enterprises ­following the recommendations of Zuma’s review committee on re-configuring these enterprises will be closely watched.

Their performance could become the defining ­issue of his presidency, particularly as the bulk of the State’s more than R800 billion infrastructure spend – intended as the primary driver of the ­government’s efforts to grow the economy – is tied up in these institutions.

But the enterprises are highly contested terrain.

Vested interests in senior ANC ranks have been aggressively eyeing commercial opportunities there, as the private sector loses its enthusiasm for soft-touch black economic empowerment deals.

Zuma may have to contend with these when he leads the Cabinet discussion on the future of the enterprises.

Zuma’s first two years in office saw him concentrating on domestic policy and party politics. This year, however, will surely be a different story.

With nearly a third of African countries holding elections, foreign policy will demand greater priority.

Neighbours Zimbabwe and the Democratic ­Republic of Congo are preparing for what could be potentially disruptive elections.

Zuma’s foreign policy success will hinge on how South Africa responds to the manner in which the competing parties conduct their polls and respond to the election outcome.

South Africa’s role as an independent interlocutor in Zimbabwe will set the tone for the international community’s take on developments there.

For ­Zuma, 2011 is about not only reaching that all-important presidential halfway mark, it is also about whether he can stay the course for a second term in the party and consequently the state.

» ?Brown is a freelance political writer

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