Time to look at Zim

2009-05-13 00:00

AFTER all the sturm und drang of the great war between Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki, we at last have sight of the new government that will run this country for the next five years. And it is, well, shall we say cleverly balanced. The chameleon has done his work and put together a greatly enlarged cabinet of 62 ministers and deputy ministers that spans all colours of the spectrum of ideologies within the ANC — and beyond.

The “broad church” of the ANC has been expanded into a kind of national kgotla that includes everybody from Pieter Mulder of the right-wing Freedom Front Plus to black capitalists, communists and left-wing socialists.

Meanwhile, macroeconomic discipline will be safe under the watchful eye and very capable hand of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his sound deputy, Nhlanhla Nene, while the left has been rewarded by being included in the decision-making mechanisms of the government both in the cabinet and through the new policy commission in the presidency — which itself is cleverly balanced by being placed under the chairmanship of the left’s bête noire, Trevor Manuel.

It is a shrewd strategy designed to give everyone a sense of participation in the decision-making processes of the government, while not allowing either wing to dominate, so minimising the risk of further Cope-like breakaways as the glue that bound the original anti-apartheid coalition together steadily weakens with distance from the attainment of its founding goal.

It also means that nothing much is going to change. The Zuma administration will not be able to move sharply either to the left or the right, but will operate by a constant compromise or consensus process synthesised through Manuel’s policy planning commission.

As it turns out, this is not the time for radical change anyway. We are in the midst of the deepest global economic crisis since the Great Depression 80 years ago, which means it would be the height of folly to engage in any economic experimentation. This is a time for caution, for holding the ship steady through the storm and ensuring we survive in decent shape.

In fact, we are better placed than most to do that. Our economy is healthier than nearly all the major developed economies, particularly the United States and Britain, thanks largely to the much-maligned Thabo Mbeki and the prudent financial management of his man at the Treasury, Trevor Manuel. The causes of the crisis as they are impacting on us are almost entirely exogenous; they have come from outside. To pursue the medical analogy, there have been no endogenous causes, or infections of internal origin, to aggravate the crisis. Our banks are sound. None have collapsed, nor have any had to be rescued by the government. We never had a sub-prime mortgage system, no shadow banking system of any kind, so there has been no serious infection from the toxic derivatives that have ravaged the developed economies.

Nor is the government having to rescue the economy with huge financial injections, as others are doing. This is fortuitous, because we already have an ongoing stimulatory programme that was launched four years ago in the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative, or AsgiSA, programme which committed large capital sums for infrastructural development aimed at boosting our rate of investment to 25% of gross national product. Additional amounts were subsequently added to enable us to host next year’s 2010 Soccer World Cup.

So while other countries are having to start their stimulatory programmes from scratch, we already have momentum in ours.

All of which means we should be well placed to be among the first economies to begin recovering when the turnaround comes.

But we have one problem to overcome — the image of Zuma himself in the eyes of the world. I am writing this from London where there is much scepticism about Zuma in the great finance houses, the investments of which we need if we are to realise our potential for early recovery — a negativity amplified by the fact that the whole of Britain is seething with anger at the disclosure of massive expense-account scamming by their own politicians.

They know little about the man, but his image is not good, as it comes across here of a politician who got himself off the hook of serious corruption charges by highly questionable means. So the questions abound. Is Zuma not the harbinger of a corrupt regime in South Africa? Is he not too ruthless and hungry for power? Won’t he become just another African dictator? Will South Africa go the way of Zimbabwe?

Although the expressed fears are exaggerated, some absurdly so, there is a persistent element of what a friend calls “theological pessimism” about South Africa in Britain. It is sadly true that Zuma has shown himself to be a flawed character and that our judicial system has taken a battering. There is much damage control to be done.

Zuma started promisingly with his first speech in Parliament after it formally elected him last Wednesday, when he pledged to return to the reconciliation values of Nelson Mandela and to start a new chapter in relations with the opposition, saying his administration would try to avoid being over-defensive and not view all opposition in a negative light. He expanded on this reconciliation theme in his inauguration speech on Saturday.

This is important, for the long war with Mbeki has polluted our political atmosphere with bitterness. Too much intemperate language has been spewed around by ANC leaders, not only the loutish Julius Malema but also by more senior members who have had some reckless things to say about the judiciary and the Constitutional Court which have caused concern about the low level of political tolerance in the ANC.

Improving relations with the opposition is particularly important if Zuma is to offset the suspicion that he and the ANC, like so many ruling oligarchies in Africa over the years, regard opposition as treachery and can’t handle democracy when they find themselves seriously challenged at the polls.

But if he is to succeed in removing that image of deep-down intolerance of political opposition, Zuma will have to go beyond mere words. He will have to act firmly to ensure that the ANC is prepared to accept its role as opposition in the Western Cape and quell threats by the party’s unruly elements there to disrupt the Democratic Alliance administration by rendering the province “ungovernable”.

But the biggest bugbear of all remains the image of Zimbabwe. The one thing Zuma could do to exorcise forever the ghost that haunts the image of our country abroad, that we may go the way of Zimbabwe, would be to act decisively to end the shenanigans that are threatening to disrupt the unity government in Zimbabwe and allow Zanu-PF to rig the 2011 elections yet again. Zuma should warn Robert Mugabe and the thugs behind him that if the Global Peace Agreement brokered by the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) is not honoured to the letter, South Africa will withdraw all support and recognition of the regime and its president – and encourage other Sadc countries to do likewise.

That would instantly transform his image and South Africa’s.

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