Zuma Can’t Dance

At a campaign rally for Jacob Zuma I attended last spring, the notorious big man wowed the crowd by leading them in the songs and dances of the apartheid-era liberation movement.  But now in office and subjected to the pressures of pleasing his party and an economic recession, Zuma faces a faster beat.  And it’s far from clear he knows the steps.

First, a primer: the ruling ANC government is not truly a monolithic behemoth but, rather, a so-called tripartite alliance of the ANC joined by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP.)

After the fall of apartheid, many analysts expected (or hoped) COSATU and the SACP would split from their liberation allies to form a left wing in South African politics.  But it didn’t happen.  Instead, the leftists were persuaded to stay in the alliance. Officially, they maintain that this way, they are better able to influence policy from within.  But that hasn’t happened either.

The Mandela administration soon veered away from the ANC’s socialist mantras of the past and instituted, broadly speaking, capitalist economic policies (though not anything too drastic, like much-needed labor market reform.)  So the political monopoly of the ANC ensured not only that South Africa would suffer from the corruption that accompanies an unchallenged hold on power but also that no socialist voice would have a chance to inform policy.

But last year, the leftists became strong enough to force Thabo Mbeki from power in favor of Zuma, who owed his career to union allegiances.  It seemed the talking point of COSATU had actually come to fruition.   If a nine-year presidency could be ended by the left wing, could South Africa function as a competitive intra-party democracy?

Nope: the leftist allies are frustrated again.  Zuma got rid of investor-friendly capitalist Finance Minister Trevor Manuel only to elevate him to a new, more-powerful position.  Privatizations have continued.  And the recession has prevented Zuma from launching his expansive pro-poor campaign platform.

It is now clear that the left wing in South Africa will never have its desired role in governing unless it splits to wage campaigns independently.  But this carries immense political risks in the post-apartheid environment.  Will poor South Africans be wooed away from their liberator’s banner by sometimes populist (making the Central Bank more political) and sometimes pro-development policies (better HIV/AIDS strategies) that they support? If so, the payoff for COSATU and the SACP would be huge.  If not, though, they could go the way of the most recent “splitters,” COPE, whose members suffered dearly in the recent election, were cut off from cushy ANC positions, and targeted in anti-corruption stings.

But this potential trade-off is not a new dilemma for leftists in the alliance.  What is new is that they’re not accepting their frustration easily.  Instead, they are stretching Zuma’s leadership to the limit by calling public-sector strikes (that threaten the approaching World Cup), publicly opposing his policies, and pursuing court cases against privatization plans.

So now, the country is left with something worse than an uncompetitive democracy: an ungovernable uncompetitive democracy with an economy slipping toward crisis.

Video courtesy of Bryan Riha, who recorded Zuma and enjoyed every minute of it.

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