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Worrying about your legacy, President Zuma?


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

President Jacob Zuma did very well in the first five years of his presidency, but then it all went downhill. He, alone, is to blame.

We will remember our father of the nation, President Nelson Mandela, for what has arguably become known as the South African miracle. After centuries of subjugation, first through colonialism by the Dutch and the British and thereafter the crime against humanity, apartheid, black South Africans found it in their hearts to forgive, reconcile and move forward as a nation without satisfying their primal instinct of retribution on their white counterparts and fellow citizens. It was also Mandela who gave the Republic its world-class Constitution in 1996. Nation building and reconciliation among the races will forever be Nelson Mandela’s legacy. For this we remain forever indebted to Tata.

Filling such big shoes as Mandela was always going to be a mammoth task and that is exactly why President Thabo Mbeki did not attempt this. Instead, he played to his strengths and concentrated on the South African economy and wanting to put the country back on a path of socio-economic recovery. He tried to ignite and infuse a proud African identity through his African Renaissance campaign.

The economy at the time was badly in need of a plan since we were given a country (in 1994) that was nearly bankrupt and with very little if any foreign exchange reserves in the kitty. So, Mbeki set the country on a path that would see a seven-year uninterrupted growth trajectory, building up our foreign currency reserves to a healthy and acceptable level. He also gave the citizens of Mzansi free basic services for all, which meant that the most deprived, poor and vulnerable in our society could access basic services such as a baseline number of essential kilowatts of electricity, an essential allocation of water and of course, sanitation and free basic healthcare. 

He also introduced the strategy of handing over title deeds to the most vulnerable in our society which meant that for the first time black South Africans could now also be proud property owners. As a result, these land owners could have liquid cash to bargain for access to finances against their newfound asset, if so desired.

It was Mbeki who introduced incentive systems for broad-based black economic empowerment as a means of redressing past inequalities and quota systems for women in Parliament and in ANC leadership positions.

Finally, on the domestic front, he introduced the biggest social welfare system in the world for the most vulnerable citizens in our country, the aged, the children and the indigent. His lasting legacy will be his role in the establishment of the African Union and its cardinal pillars such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the Peer Review Mechanism for each country on the continent. This was his vision for Africa’s Renaissance. For these we will forever be indebted to President Mbeki.

Of course it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the key black spots on each of these legacies above. For starters, the HIV/Aids pandemic which devastated our land throughout the late 1980s and 1990s was not given priority under the leadership of Mandela, who instead preferred putting more emphasis on the truth and reconciliation campaign. In addition, under Mandela’s tenure, while the TRC was necessary for many to find closure, there was simply no real compensation nor any real accountability of perpetrators as far as the victims were concerned. The HIV/Aids pandemic fell to Mbeki to effectively deal with but due to his and his minister of health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s handling of the disease, many of those infected with the virus died. These will forever remain black spots on the legacies of these two statesmen.

President Kgalema Motlanthe, though he only served for less than a year, will be remembered as a reconciler between the factional groups in the governing ANC; for steering the SA Inc ship steadily, and keeping the civil service intact during a very uncertain period in our country. For this we will remain indebted to President Kgalema Motlanthe.

The announcement by the IEC in 2009 that the ANC won the general elections with a mandate of 62% was marred by the worst global financial crisis we have seen since 1929. The country suffered a million job losses in this period and various industries and manufacturing sectors were on the brink of collapse due to the credit crunch. It was under President Jacob Zuma’s watch that the country managed to navigate through this globally turbulent time. It was his government that provided bailout packages for a number of industries, in particular the automobile sector which saw it stay afloat during the crisis. Over the following year or so, 750,000 jobs were meaningfully created again.

Then came the Soccer World Cup in 2010 where the whole world was watching Mzansi, on the one hand, to enjoy the feat of soccer but, on the other, to see what our country could offer the rest of the world in the form of tourism, beauty, people and indeed trade relations. If there had been any negative incidence of crime, faulty infrastructure and/or a terrorist attack, President Zuma would have been on the receiving end. We can of course all agree that many of the processes and procedures around security and so on were dealt with prior to Zuma coming to power but we cannot argue against the fact that he would have been held accountable if anything went wrong. By the same token we must credit him and his leadership for the positive management and an incident-free World Cup.

Finally, on the domestic front, the rural development programmes – spearheaded by President Zuma – are simply unmatched and have brought rural development front and centre with its own financing and priority investments.

On the international front, although the groundwork was done before, it was President Zuma who ensured our ascendency into the BRICS Geo-Strategic grouping, made up of Brazil, Russia, India and China (the emerging economies in the world). This is important because in the pursuit of a more equitable and fairer world order, this grouping provides a counterweight to the dominant Western powers. BRICS provides access to better trade relations as well as better global security arrangements. Another positive achievement on the continent was the fact that under President Zuma’s leadership we saw a push for the first woman Chair of the African Union. This was no small feat since patriarchal and chauvinist attitudes are ever prevalent in the political governance structures on the continent. Women are rarely provided with opportunities to demonstrate their leadership and that they are equal to any task.

You were doing so well in the first five years of your Presidency, sir. But then it all went downhill.

The obvious downturn commenced with your homestead, Nkandla. You simply could not restrain yourself and as a result indulged in opulence and self-aggrandisement. You recalled the presidential palaces and state houses you had seen during your exiled years of some of your counterparts elsewhere on the continent and you just had to have one too. This was a mistake – the abuse of taxpayers’ money to this end was just not justifiable.

From here on it was an unfortunate downward spiral for you and your leadership, Mr President.

The SARS Rogue Unit saga was the next faux pas. Destroying individuals’ lives and livelihoods it seems does not give you sleepless nights at all. I do not want to repeat some of what has been aptly captured in Jacques Pauw’s book, but suffice to say, your legacy took a serious knock over the next few years. State Capture will be the death knell in your otherwise illustrious struggle history and legacy, I’m afraid to say.

The eight attempts for a vote of no confidence in Parliament, protest marches from opposition parties, have been extended to marches from within the ANC alliance. You have ignored the courts, the findings of the ANC integrity commission, and refused to give an audience to the ANC veterans and stalwarts. These all speak volumes to the overall loss of confidence in your ability and leadership.

The loss of the metros in the aftermath of the local government election in 2016 was a further indication that under your leadership the ANC is beginning to lose its groundswell support and therefore its legitimacy among our people. 

The sheer desperation on your part to push for free higher education, according to news reports, can be seen as a last-ditch attempt to recover your legacy. This move would be careless on the fiscus but also indicative of how you feel no remorse to cut much needed budgets elsewhere (health and social development for example ) to fund your personal populist venture. A last-ditch attempt to be remembered and liked. So sad, Mr President. 

The tacit insistence on your part for the much vaunted nuclear programme, which as a country we cannot afford, simply fertilises your malodorous legacy.

All this has taken place while the country has been downgraded twice now to junk status. While some in your quarter will argue political agendas on the part of ratings agencies, investor confidence and investments are needed for our economy to grow and finance our social welfare, education and rural development programmes. This simple economic truth will remain the reality even when your ilk entertain unfounded conspiracy theories.

Then there is your “last supper” last week with the presidential hopefuls. Was that another half-baked attempt to be remembered as a unifier in your party?  This, I can only assume, is an extension of the unity speak at the policy conference of the ANC some months ago. It’s too little too late, Mr President. We all see right through you by now.

You, and only you, are to be blamed for not having a glistening – or at least balanced – legacy to remember you by.

An ANC in ruins, an economy in ruins, corruption and State Capture running rampant, this I’m afraid is your lasting legacy, President Zuma.   

So, no need to worry about preserving your legacy. Let’s leave it to history. DM


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