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Zuma’s South Africa takes shape

Implications for SA’s Political Process and Democracy to 2014

South Africa’s political future enters a new era under the presidency of Jacob Zuma. Much maligned by the press and the country’s ‘chattering classes,’ Zuma ascent to power has been nothing short of remarkable.

Staring down charges of corruption, Zuma effectively ran a US-style presidential campaign almost from the day he was ousted by former president, Thabo Mbeki. Capitalising on the growing disaffection with the Mbeki government, Zuma was able to galvanise his party and despite precipitating a potentially damaging split through the formation of the Congress of the People (COPE), still managed to re-vitalise a somewhat irritable ANC and restore confidence in the party for another 5 years.

Indeed, the 2009 election was a remarkably successful example of our maturing democracy at work. For the first time, there was a high degree of political tolerance as the ANC stared down a new enemy from within its own core support group – COPE. And, in the Western Cape, the party lost control of a Province for the first time since 1994. These two events were seminal in setting the seeds for a further shake-up in our political process.

Although COPE failed to live up to its early promises – and was very effectively shut out by the ANC – its existence heralded a new debate. For the first time, black voters were able to debate whether the party that brought them liberation still deserved to be supported. Therefore, for the first time, the notion of a post-liberation political party which might not be the ANC was floated in the minds of the electorate. The questions raised by this debate should not be underestimated. As Apartheid declines in the consciousness of younger blacks, so they will seek alternatives. The political movements of their parents’ generation might well not be theirs as well.

New social dynamics are also changing the face of politics. Black society is now much more stratified than ever before. The poor still languish and now rely on the promises by President Zuma for some sort of salvation from their plight. But the new emerging black middle classes are much more questioning. Their interests and values will also conflict in the future.

New forms of media and the roll-out of more affordable broadband are also changing the way we gather and analyse information. News broadcasters (including the SABC) are much freer than ever before. Our ability to debate and question the highest in the land is fast becoming part of our political culture. There is a new questioning society out there and this is critical in holding government to account. South Africans are much less placid than they were in the days of Apartheid.

Indeed, the ANC through its alliance partners and their vociferous criticism of their own political party has rubbed off on the larger body politic. We are fast establishing a very open political system – not afraid to debate and attack each other. Surely this is a very positive sign for our emerging democracy even if it is a little crude and below-the-belt in its initial stages.

President Zuma’s initial weeks in office reflect much of the ideas and references to the ANC’s election campaign and manifesto. Throughout the election process, Zuma was at pains to bring more inclusivity into government. In other words, he reached out to disparate communities across the country. He visited the poor-White communities outside Pretoria and was at pains to reassure business interests of continuity in economic policy going forward. And, by including Pieter Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus as Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Zuma was once again holding out an olive branch to a minority community that has felt threatened and even excluded from the New South Africa. Zuma’s constant references to his willingness to listen and engage in debate on policy issues is a welcome shift from the more autocratic and aloof style of his predecessor.

However, key questions remain. In choosing his cabinet, Zuma has effectively included all the ANC’s constituent elements and has paid them back for supporting him in his bid for the top job. The enlarged Cabinet is cumbersome and the line functions not clearly defined. There is no precedent for the new custodian positions of Collins Chabane or Trevor Manuel and this has the potential either to work well in eliciting efficiencies or to be mired in turf wars and frustration.

While no-one can doubt or even disagree with Zuma’s early intentions to address the plight of the poor during a time of economic crisis, he is likely to disappoint some of his key allies should he pursue current economic policies that can encourage high growth rates. Zuma will have to find a way to elicit compromises from the COSATU/SACP block in his pursuit to create the tens of thousands of jobs promised and to enhance our global competiveness. And, in times of reduced tax collections as a result of poor economic data and productivity, he will be severely curtailed in delivering on the many promises.

Ultimately, Zuma will have his hands full walking a tightrope all the time – and being watched every step of the way by a critical mass media and civic society. He can, though, take a leaf out of the book from the Brazilian President Lula da Silva. Lula was greeted with scepticism when he was elected in 2002. A Leftist from the trade unions, he initially instilled fear in the corporatist Brazil. Today, with prudent economic policies and legitimacy amongst both the Left and business, he has forged a Brazilian economy that is one of the leading lights of the developing world – and he remains sharply critical of the West as well.

Perhaps president Zuma can be Africa’s answer to Lula – confounding his critics and sceptics and with the pragmatic assistance of the Left, can overcome many of the obstacles to growth that continue to hamper our country while at the same time, ensuring a maturing democracy.

Daniel Silke is an Independent Political Analyst & Keynote Speaker based in Cape Town. He may be contacted through his website at

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