Thursday 30 April 2009

Zuma And New ANC

Last night I attended a BBC World Service briefing after the South African elections.

The discussion kept coming back to the central question: who is Jacob Zuma and what can we expect from his leadership?* The answer from the panel of World Service experts was a collective shrug. As one commentator unhelpfully but truthfully put it, he could be a great success or a complete failure, with the implication that there will be no middle ground.

The problem is that Zuma’s past as an exiled ANC leader is unknown and he refuses to answer questions about it. His proud self-image is as a ‘simple goat-herder’ at one with the ordinary people of South Africa in contrast to the aloof image of Mbeki, but whether this is just the politics of personality or a real policy shift is another matter. Mbeki was deposed by Zuma and consequently his (Mbeki's) supporters have formed a break-away party, COPE.

Zuma is keen to position his brand of ANC as the new ANC as opposed to Mbeki’s old ANC (where have we heard that debate before?). Above all, Zuma has the populist knack of managing to speak convincingly and to all audiences. For instance, he is supported by the left-wing alliance parties who detested Mbeki’s neo-liberal policies, yet has also convinced business interests that he will support them.

The panel discussion kicked off with the conduct and practicalities of the election. Once again South African voters were incredibly patient while they waited to vote in huge numbers (77.3% turn-out). One complication was that the authorities changed voting laws so that every voter could cast their vote at any polling station (i.e. not necessarily where they are registered) with the inevitable consequence that many polling stations ran out of ballot papers. The lack of violence and tension during the election could be due to the fact that the ANC were so far ahead there was little tension over the result; one commentator suggested things might have been different if COPE had ran their campaign more effectively.

Here are the results of the election (please see my previous blog on Next Left for more discussion):

  • ANC 65.9%
  • Democratic Alliance (DA) 16.6%
  • Congress of the People (COPE) 7.4%
  • Others 10%

A recurrent theory for the huge majority once again given to the ANC (even though it is down a few %) is simply loyalty. After all, it was the ANC which fought against apartheid and gave the vote to most people in South Africa in the first place.

The (new) ANC are obviously still in an impregnable position and will be for the future, despite the presence of COPE and the significant victory in the Western Cape by Helen Zille’s Democratic Alliance. However, this is the first time that the ANC have lost a state and apparently many people in the ANC secretly wish Zille was in their party.

As for COPE, there was general dismissal of their long-term prospects as a party. The key point was whether they would merge into the Democratic Alliance or be wooed back to the ANC.

The achievements and failures of the ANC after fifteen years of power are equally stark. On the one hand, the ANC have presided over 14 years of consecutive economic growth and totally defied those who predicted collapse; electricity now reaches 80% of the population; 65% of five year olds are enrolled at school, and social welfare assistance has increased four-fold. On the other hand, unemployment has doubled, crime is still on an astronomical scale in certain areas and millions are still in dire poverty despite the wealth around them.

For the ANC the problem is knowing where it can go next. The ANC have made wildly optimistic promises to redistribute 15% of land to blacks by 2013 and to halve soaring unemployment by 2014. There is little or no sign of either of these pledges will be achieved, particularly in the current economic climate. The question then poses itself:- how long will the electorate continue to give the ANC such a dominant majority if it consistently fail to deliver?

Overarching all of this speculation is the personality of Zuma himself. There are many imponderables, such as whether he can bring the ANC back together, and whether he can manage huge and probably unrealistic expectations in times of economic hardship. Zuma will forever be associated with his past, particularly the rape charges and financial scandals, but perhaps these are more of an obsession for the western media than the South African population who just want their daily life to improve. There is the chance that Zuma will be tried during his premiership, but many interests in South Africa, none the least the business community, want to avoid political instability at all costs. However, nothing is certain with Zuma.

* To be strictly correct this is still to be confirmed as has the cabinet, but it is all but certain.

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