Political Symbiosis: Zuma, the ANC and the Future of South Africa
A number of years ago a South African diplomat in Prague remarked – in preparation for Africa Day 2010 – that ‘South Africa is not ready to be normal, apartheid made sure that many generations would pass before South African’s can look to the future with pride and vision.’ It is not that South African’s do not look forward to the future; they do. Rather, the more distant past, with all its humiliations and violence, has plagued the post-apartheid environment. People want to forget the brutality of those years but can’t. All they can hope for is social and political stability so that the national economy can flourish and South Africa can build over the past.
However, reading any of the stories which make it out of Africa and bounce around the news of the West seems to justify negativity as the only news is bad news. Whether referring to the near-gleeful expressions of doubt as to South Africa’s ability of hosting the World Cup (2010), the endless tales of violence against tourists, or the lingering racial tensions which occasionally spill-over into aggression, it is clear that South Africa in 2012 is synonymous with danger and failure.
Such commentary is coupled with very damaging reports which slither their way out of many, more conservative, outlets such as the Economist and the Financial Times and seek not so much to inform their readers as to the plight of South Africans, as such, but rather warn off potential investors from making inroads into the country.
This editorial tactic is both reprehensible and rather confusing considering that financial stability has long been accepted as the basis for the development of a reflective civil society and forms the bedrock of social reconciliation. So, at a time when critical investment decisions are being taken around Africa, ill-judged commentary from normally authoritative outlets is especially damaging.
This is not to deny the level of violence in the country, or to suggest that police do not use excessive means, or that widespread corruption is not present. Such problems, and many more, exist. However, it is important to understand the reasons why South Africa has been unable to fully deal with these. To do so, a clear and unambiguous acknowledgment of the complexities of South Africa is required and this, in turn, requires the abandonment of name-and-blame, particularly putting the onus of South Africa’s shortcomings squarely on the shoulders of Zuma, leader of the ruling Africa National Council (ANC).
One of the consequences of apartheid in South Africa is a degree of political arrest; conditions where changes to political structures and discourses occur at a snail’s pace. There should be little wonder why this is so; only one party, the ANC managed to bring together critical mass – under the leadership of the (now) ailing Nelson Mandela – to overthrow the regime and install democracy. And its public reward for doing so is its continuous place in the hearts of South Africans as a force of positive change in the country and, more practically, its near-guaranteed seat at the helm of national decision-making. In short, the ANC will likely remain the dominant party in the foreseeable future.
Yet, there is a free press and elections are fair and transparent, even at the party level. So, even if the next few Presidents are going to come from the ANC, it is up to the party’s membership who it chooses to lead it.
Zuma is seeking another term, and he is the right candidate to maintain stability in the party and the country. The alternatives are too unpredictable. Consider the defamed ANC Youth Leader Julius Malema, an opportunistic, populist whose policies certainly border on – and often cross into – the extreme; who patiently awaits Zuma’s departure not because he can deliver a stronger and more stable South Africa, but rather so that he can realise his own ambitions of holding true power.
South Africa is a special case. The line that Mandela took in 1994 was extraordinary, and rightly he was feted for it. But the consequences of that gesture are that it remains a country in transition. Meeting the aspirations of the poor, and addressing the wide disparities in wealth and opportunity, are incredible challenges; and it is churlish and myopic to hold one man, the current president, solely responsible for slow progress. Instead, it may be more important to view the dilemma from the other side, that despite being slow, progress is continuing. This is due, in no small measure, to the Zuma’s personal touch to political life, his charisma and the role he played in building the post-apartheid structures of the country.
Zuma has overseen tremendous developments in South Africa and while some attempt to shadow these through a bad-news-only strategy, careful inspection reveals just how far South Africa has come with Zuma at the helm. Indeed, South Africa is incomparable to its neighbours such as Angola or Mozambique; their economies are considerably smaller and largely dependent on hydrocarbons. On the other hand, South Africa has a diverse economy and one that has been hard hit by a drop in global demand, a slump in mineral/metals prices (especially iron ore/steel) and by its dependence on imported energy. That’s why its GDP growth is not sparkling. Yet, the very fact that its GDP continues to grow is testament to solid political and economic leadership.
There is a collective, international responsibility to ensure that all that has been fought for in South Africa – and owing to the nature of the 1994 ‘compact’ that Mandela forged – is not undermined. This is owed to the South African people since the apartheid regime was only kept afloat by its relationship to the West. So, at this time of considerable transformation in the country, it would be useful for governments and the international media to spend time looking for ways to help South Africa overcome its problems, to reinforce the ANC leadership under Zuma to assist in further national stabilisation and reconciliation instead of using their energies only to castigate and find fault.
Zuma may not be the perfect candidate, but he is a strong leader and knows his country well. On reflection, he alone is up to the task of navigating the country through the very rough waters of national politics so that South Africa emerges as a strong, confident and responsible partner for the region and the world.