If President Jacob Zuma were asked to run on just one thing – his record in office since 2009 – for re-election as African National Congress leader, and of South Africa, how would he fare? Barack Obama, with the help of the brilliant Bill Clinton, has shown that it is possible to inherit a mess and in a short space of time, against incredible odds, make some headway.
It was not difficult to watch the Democratic National Convention and feel a massive pang of jealousy. It wasn’t the glitziness of it – though it was quite a carnival – but rather the sight of leaders of a political party actually presenting its delegates with substance rather than tedious waffle or belligerence as reason for continued support. It made me dread the ANC’s Mangaung conference, which will be nothing like the DNC.
I actually like many things about the way we conduct politics in South Africa. I love the singing at ANC and Cosatu conferences, for example. The more pronounced sense of party that you get in South Africa also means that policies tend to come as a package, making it far easier to judge which people have the best plan for the country. The US system and the often-ridiculous partisan hatred means that good plans often die because they weren’t presented by the right people, or get mangled beyond recognition before implementation to please the opposite party or special interest groups.
It is grossly unfair to compare the US and South African political systems, since they are products of radically different countries and people, but I’m going to do it anyway because it is fun and, in one respect, all politicians are similar. That being, obviously, the record of the person in charge while they are in office. Some politicians have a really easy time of it; some are asked to govern hell; but all politicians leave a legacy that can be tested against universal principles.
One of those principals is called Actually Doing Your Job. Thanks to America’s politics, the only platform on which Obama can realistically run his re-election campaign is his record in the White House. In South Africa, this isn’t the case at all for national politics – what happened prior to 1994 still matters deeply, for various reasons (refer to the comments on any News24 article for a fuller discussion on this point).
Watch: Bill Clinton defends Obama’s record
There is no question that Obama inherited a truly crap state of affairs, and had to fight the Republicans in trying to implement what he believed was the right plan to fix things. Partisan hatred has not been this pronounced in America’s history. Over on this side of the pond, the recession hit like a tornado and countless jobs were lost. The Zuma administration faced the power crisis, the education crisis, the unemployment crisis and the inequality crisis, not to mention the Marikana crisis.
The point is that both President Jacob Zuma and Obama have had big problems to fix, and the odds weren’t stacked their way. No sane person could have expected either of them to fix their country in a matter of four or five years, but some progress was certainly expected.
As Bill Clinton artfully pointed out in his DNC speech, Obama has actually done some things to fix the US economy. His bailout of the motoring industry has been a success. The bank bailout (brought in by GW Bush, but supported by Obama), as massively unpopular as it may have been, helped steady the market a lot sooner than it would otherwise have. There are now more Americans with jobs than at the beginning of Obama’s presidency. He has ended the pointless Iraq war, and scaled back in Afghanistan as al-Qaeda and the Taliban lost power and influence there. Oh, and he oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Imagine what would have happened to Obama if during his tenure, the education systems of several states collapsed, and the US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan refused to take any responsibility for the mess. Imagine if one of the top officials in the FBI was suspected of not only spying on Mitt Romney on Obama’s behalf, but he was also facing a possible murder trial? What would the American people have done if the chief of the CIA, Homeland Security, FBI or any of the other security agencies was sacked for complicity in corruption, or incompetence (depending on how you see it), as Bheki Cele was?
Forget about not having a platform to run on, Obama would have been impeached a hundred times over. He would have destroyed the Democrats for the coming two decades, if not more.
Zuma could have made steps to fix the broken state he inherited. The ANC as a whole could have eradicated the scourge of corruption in all tiers of governments or end that greatest cancer of them all, deployment. What we have had instead is a series of blunders and gaffes ranging from the laughable (the endless patriarchal and sexist comments) to the grotesque (Limpopo textbooks). There hasn’t even been much headway in areas where someone in government had a good idea which would have done something to fix unemployment. Where’s the youth wage subsidy these days?
So when Zuma speaks at Mangaung, I don’t expect anything other than the usual impenetrable party guff and “everything is still Hendrik Verwoerd’s fault” nonsense. It’s not like he can fall back on his record, can he? DM
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Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.
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