Jacob Zuma: a year of drift

The South African president’s achievement on his anniversary in power is to leave his country rudderless and his party at war, says Roger Southall.

South Africans are assessing Jacob Zuma’s first year as their president since his election by the country's parliament on 6 May 2009. The vast majority of the judgments on his performance are resoundingly negative.

At present, the country is in a bad temper all round. The impact of the economic crisis has seen swinging job losses, especially amongst the poorer black majority, leaving millions scrimping for survival. South Africa has one of the world’s widest gaps between rich and poor, and it shows no sign of narrowing. Manufacturing industries have taken a massive hit; the worst appears to be over, yet they are now struggling to get back on to their feet in the context of the rise of the Rand against other major currencies (which makes their exports more expensive and imports of competing products cheaper).

Meanwhile, it seems increasingly likely that the short-term economic stimulus which has long been promised by the start of the soccer world cup in June 2010 is going to fizzle out; estimates about the number of football-related visitors to the country is day-by-day being revised downwards (from the initially predicted 400,000 to not much above half that). The tourist and hotel sector has been thrown into a state of gloom; airlines have released tickets previously reserved for fans; and (horror of horrors) the governing body Fifa has had to ensure full stadiums by abandoning its fiercely complicated ticket-application process in favour of selling them over the counter to South Africans (and it couldn’t even do that right, leading to fighting in the queues). Further, there is a growing conviction that once the cup is over, Fifa will be running off to deposit fat gains in the bank while leaving South Africans to rue the cost.

A moment of malaise

Indeed, the looming economic disappointment of the world cup points to the broader context of South Africa’s malaise. For while the reduction in the expected number of visitors can in part be ascribed to the global economic downturn, there is little doubt that it also due to the pummelling the country’s image has received by two recent events: the populist mouthings of Julius Malema (leader of the African National Congress Youth League [ANCYL]), and the killing on 3 April 2010 of Eugene Terreblanche (leader of the ultra-rightwing AWB militia) by two black employees.

The predictions (and hopes?) of at least one tabloid newspaper in Britain that South Africa is relapsing into a racial war are way off target, but there is no doubt that the twinning of Malema and Terreblanche in the public imagination has severely dented the idea of South Africa as the “rainbow nation” - and confirmed the view of many whites that their future lies elsewhere.

However, even beyond the misery of a depressed economy, the probable disappointment of the world cup, and growing racial tensions, what most characterises public debate is widespread anger and disgust with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and Jacob Zuma’s dismal failure to confront its decline into a morass of corruption, conflict and internal disarray.

A president’s promise

Jacob Zuma rode to the ANC leadership on the back of a coalition driven by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). It included a host of those alienated from or excluded by his predecessor Thabo Mbeki. Among them were the left, which had been angered by Mbeki’s pro-market economic policies, which they claimed were anti-worker and anti-jobs; people offended by Mbeki’s perceived authoritarianism, and by his irrational and internationally embarrassing position on HIV/Aids; and not least, individuals who felt that they had been excluded from access to opportunity and the prospect of wealth under his rule.

In short, those who congregated behind Zuma formed a motley alliance; but it was one that, above all, was prepared to bury its doubts about his morality (sexual as well as financial) in its determination to get him into power.

Zuma, initially, did not disappoint them, for he proved a wily and able campaigner in the run-up to the general election held on 22 April 2009. The lifting of criminal proceedings against him in March (in a controversial decision by a new chief prosecutor) was a precious boost; the corruption charges were dismissed on the grounds that new evidence had appeared – itself obtained in shadowy fashion - which purported to show that there had been a criminal conspiracy against him (see “South Africa’s election: a tainted victory”, 7 April 2009).

In the campaign, Zuma strove to appeal to as wide an array of the electorate as possible: not only hardened ANC supporters, but poor whites, white farmers, Afrikaners and businessmen. Indeed, it could be said that he charmed and danced his way to the presidency. The result was decisive: the ANC obtained an overall 65.9% popular majority – down from 69.7% in 2004, but nonetheless a remarkable triumph in the context of a party which for several years had been torn apart by a leadership struggle (see “Thabo Mbeki’s fall: the ANC and South Africa’s democracy”, 14 October 2008).

Jacob Zuma arrived in the presidency with a large body of South African opinion being prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. True, there was widespread concern over a range of issues: the dropping of the corruption case against him; his moral laxity (his multiple sexual liaisons over the years had received wide publicity after he was - unsuccessfully - brought to court on a charge of rape in 2007); his backing by Cosatu and the SACP (which created fear in some financial circles of a communist takeover by stealth); and the large number of political opportunists that had jumped on his coattails.

But there were also counter-trends: broad relief at the departure of Thabo Mbeki, considerable (if sometimes reluctant) admiration for how Zuma had triumphed over all adversity, and widespread recognition that - for all his faults - the man was a genuinely nice guy. In short, although there were many anxieties, there was also a feeling that Zuma represented a new beginning, even a return to the inclusive politics of Nelson Mandela.

A party riven

But in only a year, Zuma’s reputation is in tatters, his leadership openly questioned across wide swathes of the ANC and the tripartite alliance (the framework which formally links the party together with Cosatu and the SACP). His personal blemishes have continued to damage him, not least the enforced admission of having fathered a further child out of wedlock, with the daughter of a close friend, Irvin Khoza (who was mightily unimpressed). In political terms, he has proved remarkably indecisive and manifestly unable to hold the ANC together; the spectacle the party presents to the country is one of open conflict between different factions, where debate about policies is subordinated to the exchange of personal insults and accusations between individuals and groupings scrambling to grab the fruits of state power.

At present, there are three broad tendencies within the ANC. The first is represented by elements within the finance ministry and national treasury, who prioritise the need for macroeconomic stability (controlling inflation and maintaining investor confidence). This group, under finance minister Pravin Gordhan, can be said to favour broad continuity with the economic policies favoured under Thabo Mbeki, albeit with perhaps rather more readiness to embrace a degree of state planning.

The second tendency is the broad left, centred in the tripartite alliance, and now represented in the cabinet through a series of appointments: notably, of the SACP’s Rob Davies to the department of trade and industry; of Ebrahim Patel, formerly secretary-general of Cosatu’s textile industry, to head a new ministry of economic development; and of the SACP’s general-secretary Blade Nzimande to the ministry of higher education. Together, the left favours adoption of more expansionary financial policies, more determined moves towards social redistribution, and pursuit of the policies of a “developmental state”.

The third tendency is far more diffuse, has strong links to business, and is heavily dependent upon “black economic empowerment”, procurement of state tenders and political patronage. By its nature, this third grouping tends to be opportunistic, and the forays of its diverse membership into ideological battle highly instrumental.

The tensions between these three groups have become wide open under Zuma, who is involved in different ways in all three: his presidential head tells him to follow the first tendency, he is politically obligated to the second, and his material interests appear very much to lie with the third. His initial inclusion of leftist heavyweights in important portfolios in the cabinet was greeted as a case of the president both paying off debts and heralding a major shift towards state planning and the “developmental state’ (not least because Gordhan himself combined longstanding and close connections to Zuma with service on the SACP’s central-committee-in-exile). Yet in reality, the left is heavily outnumbered and its influence diluted in a now expanded cabinet. Thus for all the alarm in conservative fiscal circles about a strong communist presence in government, the reality under Gordhan has been that economic policies have exuded far more continuity with the Mbeki era than change.

A strategy clouded

An example is the government’s Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP), announced with considerable fanfare in February 2010. In drawing inspiration from the strategies of “developmental states”, this promises to create 2.4 million jobs over ten years as a result of a core programme of manufacturing expansion. Yet it is far from being an undiluted triumph for the left. The plan is backed by promises of government funding over its first three years to the value of R8.2 billion ($1bn), yet the bulk of this still has to be extracted from the treasury, which if not actively disapproving is most certainly dubious.

More problematic is that the IPAP places major emphasis upon an expansion of infrastructure through the provision of procurement funding by the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC). In theory, this seeks to replicate the experiences of successful developmental states; in practice, it is likely to be hugely complicated both by demonstrable weaknesses in state capacity and by the problems of corruption and patronage.

The implication is that the left is facing a considerable risk: that while it is engaged in bitter battles with the finance ministry and the treasury over fiscal policy, it may set the scene for a massive long-term allocation of state resources to those within the ANC who view the party primarily as an instrument to acquire state funds in order to smooth their entry into lucrative business areas.

A challenge failed

Jacob Zuma seems incapable of reconciling the differences between the three tendencies within the ANC. He has enraged the left by giving various assurances to South Africa’s financial community, western governments and overseas investors that his government is committed to business as usual. He has also been completely inept in efforts to contain the populist campaign launched by Julius Malema to nationalise the mining industry – even though Malema’s motivations in this regard are almost certainly devious (and indeed a reading of the small print of the ANCYL’s proposals reveals a plan to establish a state mining company which would milk contracts from the state).

Indeed, the controversy over Malema’s ambitions illustrates Zuma’s flawed and inconsistent political judgment. Malema’s nationalisation campaign, widely publicised abroad, unsettled international capital markets fearful that Malema was right in predicting the ANC’s eventual adoption of his plans; yet it also upset the domestic left, nervous at the prospect of being outpaced by his phoney radicalism.

Zuma was at first content merely to pronounce the proposals “a matter for debate”. Indeed, it was only after the demagogic Malema made an official visit on behalf of the ANCYL to Zimbabwe - where he further embarrassed the ANC by praising Robert Mugabe, his land seizures and his ill-considered plans for the “indigenisation” of capital - that Zuma sought to avert fears that South Africa was heading in Zimbabwe’s direction by publicly reprimanding Malema and indicating that he would be subject to the ANC’s internal discipline. The outcome of that process is awaited, amid indications are that Malema’s various supporters in the party are rallying behind him.

A crony system

The growing tensions between the ANC and the alliance, the left’s complaints about the fundamental continuity in economic policy, and Julius Malema’s populist antics have dominated South Africa’s headlines. Yet the most alarming trend is the steady drip of scandals around the allocation of state contracts.

The most inventive concept of the Zuma era so far is that of the “tenderpreneurs” – ANC-connected businesspeople who thrive on the receipt of tenders from all levels of government; tenders that appear in many cases to be corruptly allocated. Cosatu has tabled a document in a meeting with the ANC which urges the party to take a much stronger position on the intersection of public service and private business, demanding for example that cabinet ministers and senior government officials who hold business interests resign.

Indeed, the Mail & Guardian newspaper reveals that some twenty-seven ministers and deputies in Zuma’s government are registered as active directors or members of companies and close corporations, many of the latter doing business with departments of government; and the auditor-general’s report in 2009 found that more than 2,000 government officials had directly or indirectly benefited from government tenders worth more than R600 million ($80m). Unless the ANC changes its position on this, Cosatu warns, “we will be en route to Zimbabwe and other failed revolutions in the world”.

These are strong words, but have little prospect it would seem of implementation. Siphiwe Nyanda, the former head of the defence force and now minister of communications, is revealed to have established a company (General Nyanda Security Services) that received multi-million contracts from the Gauteng provincial government, and (corruptly) from a government “parastatal” (Transnet Freight Services) - yet there has been no official pressure on him to resign.

Julius Malema too has been identified as the director of companies that have received huge contracts from the government in his home province of Limpopo, yet Zuma has denied any need for an inquiry. It is significant here that Zuma’s own family (and prominent individuals connected to it) have made rapid inroads into business since the Polokwane congress of December 2007 that ensured his accession to the ANC leadership. The ANC too is engaged in a major controversy about whether it should divest itself of a 25% shareholding in Hitachi Africa, a company which has been awarded a massive tender related to the building of Eskom’s proposed new coal-fired Medupi power-station.

There is plenty of regulation available to deal with all of this. South Africa’s anti-corruption laws are impeccable, the problem is that there is no concerted effort to enforce them. Meanwhile, it is not just Cosatu, the media and opposition parties which are protesting at the increasingly rampant corruption; around the country, disgruntled supporters of the ANC in impoverished communities are in open protest against “failures of service delivery” - a phrase which covers a multitude of sins, but which reflects the widespread belief that ANC control of provincial and local government centres around allocation of rewards to cronies.

A lost unity

The coalition of the left and the politically aggrieved that brought Jacob Zuma to power is now openly fragmenting, and Zuma seems at a total loss at how to deal with the process. As a result, there is a widespread sense of a vacuum at the centre of his government, with important policy matters drifting and the different tendencies fighting.

The present struggle is a vitally important one. The left is divided from fiscal conservatives on matters of economic policy, yet they share a common interest in confronting the dangers of growing patronage and corruption. Whether they can bury their differences sufficiently to confront a common enemy is a question without an answer. An alarming prospect is that they will knock each other out in battle, leaving the third tendency to march South Africa along the road to Zimbabwe. 

About the author

Roger Southall is professor of sociology and research associate in the Society, Work and Development Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. His publications include Democracy in Africa: Moving Beyond a Difficult Legacy (Human Sciences Research Programme, 2005); (edited with Henning Melber) Legacies of Power: Leadership Change and Former Presidents in African Politics (IPG, 2006); (co-edited with John Daniel) Zunami! The 2009 South African Elections (Jacana, 2009); and, as co-editor, several editions of the annual "state of the nation" survey of South Africa.

Read On

South African History Online

South Africa's government

Roger Southall, Sakhlea Buhlungu, John Daniel & Jessica Lutchman, eds., State of the Nation: South Africa 2007  (HSRC Press, 2007)

Review of African Political Economy

Africa Confidential - election briefing

Tom Lodge, Mandela: A Critical Life (Oxford University Press, 2006) 

More On
Roger Southall is honorary research professor in the sociology of work unit, University of the Witwatersrand
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Also in openDemocracy on South African politics and society:

Gillian Slovo, "Making history: South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission" (5 December 2002)

John Matshikiza, "Johannesburg: shanty city, instant city" (13 December 2002)

Paul Kingsnorth, "Apartheid: the sequel" (20 May 2003)

Nahla Valji, "South Africa: no justice without reparation" (2 July 2003)

Achille Mbembe, "South Africa's second coming: the Nongqawuse syndrome" (15 June 2006)

Achille Mbembe, "Whiteness without apartheid: the limits of racial freedom" (4 July 2007)

Faten Aggad & Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, "South Africa's tipping-point" (2 June 2008)

Tom Lodge, "Nelson Mandela: assessing the icon" (18 July 2008)

Elleke Boehmer, "Beyond the icon: Nelson Mandela in his 90th year" (12 November 2008)