South Africa’s parliament convenes 5 May and will elect ANC leader Jacob Zuma as the next president. But could Zuma’s strong and polarising language and the ANC’s weak approach to serious problems lead to chaos in SA?
The scene is by now familiar: a beaming Zuma clad in Zulu warrior regalia, leading the ecstatic crowd in his trademark song, Umshini Wam (“Bring me my machine gun”). Equally well-known: Zuma received little formal education, is a polygamist and father of more than 20 children, and still has a home at the small rural village where he grew up at Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Observers living in the modern western world may be forgiven for thinking Zuma to be a pre-modern traditionalist. But the reality is more complex: Zuma is a skilled modern politician who, together with his most important allies in the ANC, understands how to exploit pre-modern, traditionalist sentiment for their political gains.
To understand how Zuma operates, and the possibility for violence and chaos that his ascendancy might represent, consider the pressures that are now on him, and his party. They stem from the ANC’s failing political and economic vision and from the ongoing social challenges of post-apartheid South Africa.
The ANC’s record in government remains hotly debated. How far has it achieved its goal of “a better life for all”?
Since 1994 the government says 2.7 million houses have been built; 13.4 million people (out of an official population of 48.7 million) are on government social grants; 75% of households have access to electricity and sanitation; and the majority have access to potable water.
On the downside, South Africa fell from 89th in the UN Human Development Index in 1998 to 125th in 2008. SA school children rank among the least numerate and literate in the world. More than a third of municipalities do not function properly. The minister for water recently admitted to concerns about water quality; and SA’s available water is used almost to capacity, while the country’s development and social needs continue to grow.
State institutions, such as the national broadcaster, the Land Bank and national airline, are losing hundreds of millions of rands — amid allegations of corruption and in-fighting. Crime is among the most violent and highest anywhere. Most worryingly, the gap between rich and poor is now one of the highest in the world – and particularly between rich and poor black South Africans. This is where the ANC is at its most vulnerable. For up to 60% black South Africans live in poor to extremely poor conditions, even though up to two million of them have benefited from the government’s (controversial) affirmative action and black economic empowerment policies. The fact is, the ANC’s main strategy since 1994 was not to make more people economically self-sufficient, but to get more formerly excluded people included in the same economic and state structure that had created the inequality and exclusion in the first place. And so a small minority of the previously excluded will be fast-tracked up the economic ladder, and the vast majority will remain in the same abject position. This is what has led to the huge and rapid gap between rich and poor black South Africans.
This strategy will create the illusion that some of the black poor are advancing while, for the majority, the reverse is true. Which makes people all the more impatient. The government’s response to this danger has been to increase spending on social grants: the 2.5 million assisted in 1996 has shot up to 13.4 million.
The ANC was able to finance this on the back of the commodity boom up to the current global recession. But to what extent will it be able to carry on this funding? The recession has already put a number of black economic empowerment deals on hold.
Zuma and his people seem to have resorted to ethnic and racial purism, too, to judge by the number of t-shirts with “Zuma 100% Zulu boy” or Zuma’s words to a group of Afrikaner leaders before the election: “Of all the white groups that are in South Africa, it is only the Afrikaners that are truly South Africans in the true sense of the word”? Zuma’s biographer, Jeremy Gordin, called Zuma South Africa’s first “true African” president (see David Smith, The Age, Melbourne, 22 April 2009).
Then there’s the revolutionary strategy of in-group creation. An ordained lay preacher, Zuma has repeatedly invoked God to justify ANC power. On 19 April, at a mass gathering concluding the election campaign, Zuma declared the ANC “will lead again because God is on our side.” And Gwede Mantashe (one of Zuma’s closest allies and ANC secretary-general) has over the past 15 months called political opponents or institutions not to the ANC’s liking “counter-revolutionary.” Zuma himself has an ambiguous way of using revolutionary in-group language; he claims he is a mere servant (“just a pawn”) of his party, humbly accepting the country’s presidency as the party’s will.
So how serious is his stated position that he only intends to serve as president for a single term of five years? What would the “pawn” do if the party insisted in five years’ time on him serving longer? Zuma would not be the first modern politician to play political chess.
There is also the cult of personality. When Zuma and Thabo Mbeki became bitter rivals, the personalisation of ANC and, by extension, South African politics deepened. The president of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, declared in 2008 that he would “kill for Zuma” – and he wasn’t the only Zuma ally to say so. MK “war veterans” have become a common sight at ANC gatherings where Zuma speaks, and Zuma himself is not shy to draw on warrior language: he calls his enemies “snakes” and the ANC a “lion”.
The history of the modern world is filled with failed politicians resorting to ugly categorisation and eventually violence. The tone was set by the Jacobins after the French Revolution, when they reacted on their failures by labelling and eventually slaughtering their enemies. This is not to say that Zuma and his government will end up in the same way. But the first signs might be there.