SA’s comeback kid

2009-04-29 00:00

Although I still have serious misgivings about Jacob Zuma as our new president, about the gravity of the corruption charges against him that have not been tested in court, about the questionable and possibly illegal manner in which they were withdrawn at the last minute, and about some of the things he has had to say about the Constitutional Court, I must hand it to the man: he is a formidable fighter.

Four-and-a-half years ago, when he was facing that potentially devastating charge of rape in addition to the array of fraud and corruption allegations which had sent his close collaborator Schabir Shaik to prison, Zuma looked like a dead man walking. To have come back from there to where he is now is an amazing achievement.

Americans talked of Bill Clinton as the comeback kid, but this has got to be the greatest comeback since Lazarus.

It has required extraordinary qualities of tenacity, durability and survivability. It has also required great political skill. Those are valuable qualities for anyone aspiring to the presidency of an important and complex country such as South Africa.

Yet in the course of this remarkable odyssey, we have also glimpsed some character flaws and instances of poor judgment — from Zuma’s decision to get financially involved with the shady Shaik, to his reckless and morally deplorable act in having sex with a young woman who regarded him as a father figure and whom he knew was HIV-positive, to, more recently, his disparaging remarks about the Constitutional Court which seemed to indicate that he has difficulty understanding the concept of a constitutional democracy.

So what kind of president will Zuma be?

On the policy side, I have few qualms. Although Zuma owes much of his success to the support he received from Cosatu and the South African Communist Party, I don’t believe he is going to take the country in a sharply leftward direction to reward those alliance partners. Firstly, because he is not himself an ideological leftist but a pragmatist who will do what is necessary to survive in difficult times; secondly, because political survival requires him to maintain the “broad church” of the ANC, which means maintaining the balance between its leftists and capitalists; and thirdly because the global economic crisis will impose severe constraints on what the new government can do with economic policy.

The greatest risk facing Zuma is that he has laid himself open to a crisis of expectations. He has run a populist campaign, promising more jobs for the unemployed, more houses for the homeless, more money for the poor, and better health care, education and service delivery for everybody.

The economic crisis means he is not going to be able to deliver any of these things, not in the short term anyway. Unemployment is going to get worse, the poor are going to get poorer and the cost of living is going to increase.

President Zuma dare not do anything to frighten away what little investment may be around, which would make a bad situation worse. Economic survival has to be the name of the game.

Instead he will reward his left-wing supporters by giving cabinet positions to some, and in particular by drawing them into the decision-making processes of government through a projected new policy planning committee in the presidency. This high-level talk shop will possibly be chaired by Trevor Manuel — whom Zuma may also retain for a while as Finance Minister to reassure the business and investment communities, before replacing him with the equally reassuring Pravin Gordhan who has headed the South African Revenue Service with great distinction.

So much for the policy aspects of the new presidency. My anxieties relate to those personality flaws we have all seen in Zuma. He is a warm and friendly man, and I believe he is also someone who, unlike Thabo Mbeki, knows his own limitations and will not try to command and decide everything himself. He will run a more collegiate regime, as Nelson Mandela did, listening to all sides of every issue and trying to guide the debate to a consensus decision.

But I worry about what may happen when things go wrong. When the economic crisis bites and the crisis of expectations begins to manifest itself. When the left-wingers revolt at not having got their payback. Or when that wretched unresolved arms deal scandal rears its head again, as it surely will.

Will the proneness to poor judgment then reveal itself? Will the pressures lead to some bad decision-making? Only time and circumstances will tell.

Taking a longer view, the most interesting aspects of the election were its pointers to the future shape our political landscape is slowly beginning to assume.

The most important thing to note is that the size of the ANC’s majority is somewhat illusory, in that it was due entirely to its crushing of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party in KwaZulu-Natal. That province’s large Zulu population, its ethno-nationalism fired up by the prospect of having a fellow Zulu as president of South Africa, abandoned the IFP in droves to back Zuma. The ANC’s vote there surged by a massive 16,5% to 63,97%, cutting the IFP, which once dominated the province, down to 20,52%. Nationally, the IFP shrank to a miserable 4,55%, putting it among the minions.

But in all eight of the other provinces the ANC lost ground. Its share of the vote was cut by 13,38% in the Western Cape, 10,06% in the Free State, 9,61% in the Eastern Cape, 7,89% in the North West, 7,65% in the Northern Cape, 4,45% in Limpopo, 3,98% in Gauteng and 0,43% in Mpumalanga.

Nationally, the ANC lost 33 parliamentary seats. But for the Zulu surge it would have lost more. For all the triumphalism, therefore, it is clearly a party in slow decline, losing black voters to both the Congress of the People and a rebranded DA, the leader of which, Helen Zille, has clearly succeeded in breaching, if not yet demolishing, the white ceiling that has restricted its growth until now.

The other important factor is that the DA was the only party to gain ground in this election (not counting newcomer Cope, which picked up a disappointing 7,42% share). It boosted its national share of the vote by a third, giving it 17 more parliamentary seats, and nearly doubled its share in the Western Cape to take control of the province.

The other 23 opposition parties were decimated. If we had a minimum threshold of five percent in our proportional representation system, as Germany and New Zealand do, only three parties — the ANC, DA and Cope — would have qualified for parliamentary representation.

We are likely now to see the DA take the lead in forming coalitions with Cope and the smaller parties, beginning with the Western Cape provincial government and gradually extending in the lead-up to the 2011 municipal elections, then coalescing into one large opposition party for the next general election in 2014.

That will complete the realignment of our political landscape into a two-party system, bringing our democracy to full maturity with the prospect of periodic regime change through the ballot box.

• Allister Sparks, a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail, is a veteran South African journalist and political commentator.

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