Still for people with brains and money
23 October 2014 23:44 (South Africa)
South Africa

South Africa's Zuma obsession vs. the reality

  • Stephen Grootes
  • South Africa
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As a nation, it would seem hard to deny that we have become quite obsessed with President Jacob Zuma. He dominates all the non-Oscar headlines we have. Nkandla is now a word with special power in our politics; sometimes it seems he’s portrayed as the devil-incarnate, the person single-handedly responsible for the decline of our country, and of the ANC. But the other night, I was asked: “How different would these elections be if Zuma weren’t head of the ANC?” It’s a question that makes you think about the image of the ANC, President Jacob Zuma, and the difference between temporary electioneering antics and the longer term issues. It also makes you wonder if perhaps we are too obsessed with Number One. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

In South Africa, as in most democracies, symbols and personalities matter. The person who leads a party really matters. There is plenty of evidence that seems to show that even in constituency democracies like the UK, people tend to make their decisions not based on the person who would be the voter’s Member of Parliament, but on who the leader of the party is. So it’s obvious that Zuma matters to the ANC. If your symbol were not Zuma, who would it be?

If you try to place the ANC’s Number Two in the top spot, you would be going, as Dali Mpofu once put it, “from Nkandla man to Marikana man”. Most symbols, being human, have their issues, their political baggage. (Which could strengthen the case that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has been deployed to the African Union to keep those issues to a minimum later on.)

But if, for arguments sake, we place a cipher in the position of leader of the ANC, where would that leave us? Would things be very different for the party?

No matter who was the leader, corruption would still be a major election issue. It was Kgalema Motlanthe, in his out-going speech as Secretary General of the ANC at Polokwane in 2007, who spoke about how corruption was eating the ANC. Even before then, he’d given an interview in which he’d spoken about how projects in municipalities were conceived around who would get the tender, rather than whether the project was needed. Corruption would be a defining issue no matter who was in charge of the ANC right now.

Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that Zuma, Nkandla, and Number One’s strange path to power (the corruption charges that disappeared, his focus on putting only allies without strong constituencies of their own in charge of the security cluster of ministries, etc.) made this issue all the more challenging for the ANC. A party can’t claim to fight corruption when its leader is one of the highest-profile accused in the court of public opinion - especially when he has appeared to deliberately weaken the National Prosecuting Authority with the appointment of advocate Menzi Simelane.

Yet this is part of a much bigger political dynamic. The last few months have seen the country’s biggest union, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA, starting publicly to criticise Zuma in the strongest terms. This appears to mean that, even within the Alliance, Number One is a liability. There are, however, also other underlying tensions. Zuma is part of this dynamic in that he is the symbol of the ANC; and it is the ANC, and particularly its economic policies, that NUMSA is campaigning against. On one reading, the split within Cosatu has really been coming since 1996. It was then that Trevor Manuel, with what was surely the explicit support of Thabo Mbeki, presented his Gear Budget. And the economic policies, labelled as “neo-liberal” and the “1996 Class Project” have been the biggest bone of contention within the Alliance ever since.

It could even be argued here that it’s actually because of Zuma, and the way he has kept Blade Nzimande and the SACP on-side, that the Alliance is not splitting any further, and it’s only Cosatu that is facing this kind of turmoil. That is, the split within Cosatu would probably be happening no matter who was leader of the ANC, and Zuma may have been able to delay it longer than someone else.

Zuma’s detractors could argue, apparently convincingly, that one of the biggest threats the ANC faces in these elections is the Economic Freedom Fighters and the former young lion, Julius. Certainly, Zuma was the person in charge of the ANC when Malema was expelled, but no leader of the ANC would have been able to tolerate the open dissent that he fostered – and it was an ANC process that saw Malema leaving, not a Zuma process. The disciplinary committees that presided over it were technically independent, even though it was a party political process. Either way, Malema would have been thrown out. It could be argued that Zuma had a hand in creating Malema in the first place, but even that would be overdone. Malema broke the mould when he was produced, and Zuma acted against him when he could.

So the EFF and the threat it poses (which I think is still overdone) can’t really be put at Zuma’s door.

Then there is the apparent growth in support for the DA. This is a harder question for Zuma’s supporters to tackle, the threat to the urban, black, middle-class vote. It is of course true that the DA has won more support over the last five years, and will do better in these elections than it did in 2009. It is surely also true that the party has grown organically, its ranks are not stuffed with former ANC members angry at Zuma. The real question is whether its support has grown more quickly because of Zuma.

The answer to this could well be a qualified “yes”. Minorities had started to become politically apathetic during the Mbeki years, and then the 2011 Local Government Elections saw them coming out to vote. That surely helped the DA, and that could have been the result of its “Stop Zuma” campaign. As a message, it had about has much finesse as “Fight Back”, but it clearly worked. Nkandla, the NPA (and Mdluli and Guptas, etc etc.) will possibly push these voters to vote again this year. So Zuma may have to carry some of the can here.

Having said all of that, you have to ask if whoever was leading the ANC would have the campaigning attributes that Zuma has. The party’s grown in KZN dramatically over the last ten years, partly because of the IFP’s policy of being led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi until Jesus comes [Stephen, we realised you thought that was funny the last time you used it. It doesn’t mean you can run the same joke twice! – Ed] but also because of Zuma. On the trail, he is unbeatable, and should receive the credit for what he’s done for the party there. That means, then, that any loss of votes in urban areas to the DA could be balanced out by what Zuma brings in KwaZulu-Natal and in other rural areas. There are very few people who could keep a morning radio host in stitches for an hour while also being president, as Zuma did on Umhlobo Wenene FM last week.

No matter what your views on the South African president, whether you think he is a corrupt liability to the country and the future of your children, or whether you think he is the living embodiment of every man’s struggle to be human and have a place in the sun, there is one aspect of Zuma that simply cannot be denied. He does polarise opinion - pretty much all the time. In a divided country, that’s not surprising.

But perhaps we should step back a little and wonder if we should give more attention to the longer-term dynamics, rather just the easy headlines he produces. DM

Photo: South African school girls walk beneath an election poster for the ruling party African National Congress (ANC) in Cape Town, South Africa 28 March 2014.  EPA/NIC BOTHMA.

  • Stephen Grootes
  • South Africa


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