The year ahead in SA politics: President Jacob Zuma

By Branko Brkic 8 January 2010

Governing is hard, and governing South Africa positively sucks. On top of it, 2010 is President Jacob Zuma's first full year at the job. And there are “challenges” a-plenty.

There’s a recession (well not technically, but in the real world), a World Cup, millions of people who look to him to improve their lives, others who worry about whether their Apple Macs will light up when plugged into the wall and a bunch of financiers humming-and-hahing about inflation targeting.

And that’s the easy part. The alliance he built at Polokwane is beginning to burst at the seams, and lots of light is showing through the cracks. Would you like to be the person who takes on all of that?

Zuma’s main weapon in this, is his cabinet. It’s really their job to get things done. And if they don’t, he can carry a big stick. He can use the “evaluation and monitoring” capacity in the presidency to determine that someone has failed to make him look good. Or to put it another way, he can do what his predecessor but one did not do, carry out a re-shuffle. And thus, as is the prerogative of he who rules, in some strange way, political Teflon applies.

Managing the economy is probably going to be his biggest test this year. It’s about jobs, and it’s obvious now that his promise of half-a-million new job opportunities by the end of last year was completely off target. That probably won’t stop him from making a similar promise when he opens SA’s Parliament next month. But at some point, anger at a lack of jobs, tied to a genuine sense of grievance at municipal authorities, could boil over. Service delivery protests could move to bigger cities, and that’s when things will get very tough for Zuma.

So far, he’s avoided going to any area when tensions were running high. He sent Julius Malema to do that for him. That’s because, if he goes to such a place and the violence there continues, he will look very much like the unclad emperor. He’s been rebuked publicly once by an ordinary citizen (during the xenophobic violence in 2008) and for it to happen now would be to lose some political power. e-tv would run that footage forever.

Far easier for Zuma this year will be that minor Fifa event. If anything goes wrong (and we’re betting it won’t), he can just blame them. So all he has to do is preside over things, shake hands and smile. And he gets a picture with the World Cup-winning captain. That’s right, a picture with a man who will probably be the most popular in the world at that moment. For free.

Things in the Alliance are a tiny bit more complicated, but here he’s still standing pretty firm. Certain people may have their knives out for each other, but it is difficult to imagine anyone posing a challenge to him. The people who coalesced around him at Polokwane don’t yet have a new champion, and until they do, he’ll do absolutely fine. He may have to make a hard choice about one or two close comrades, like deciding between Gwede Mantashe and Malema, but he can cope with that.

At some point of course, one of his ministers, who’s very close to him, will be embroiled in some major scandal. He will have to put out a fire without pissing off too many people in the ANC and still keep face in the media. That will be testing.

Even more testing could be something that comes out of left field. Something that’s directly tied to him, say a corruption scandal or an arms deal. Or, perhaps, a pardon application related to such a thing. We’ve already advised him on what to do about that. It would be wrong to get involved, we said. Very, very wrong.

All in all, this could really be President Zuma’s year. For the first time in a long while, he has no court dates in his diary, he still has the backing of many voters, his former enemies are still in a honeymoon phase and he has a pretty free hand when it comes to governing.

It was Harold Macmillan who, when asked what blows governments off course, remarked, “Events, dear boy, events”. That’s what Zuma has to watch out for in 2010.

By Stephen Grootes

(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)

Read more:

The year ahead in SA politics: Gwede Mantashe

The year ahead in SA politics: Julius Malema

Photo: Reuters


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