By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Angst against Jacob Zuma, the embattled South African president who faced perhaps the strongest show of displeasure from a cross-section of South Africans since the last local government elections this past week, potentially overshadows what should be the real object of ongoing agitations. President Zuma is able to entrench himself despite popular opposition because of the way the electoral process is structured in South Africa. What needs to change is the system that vests too much power in the ruling party. Since members of parliament (MPs) elect the president, who themselves owe their positions to the benevolence of those in control of their party structures, self-preservation takes greater precedence to such ‘isms’ as heroism and patriotism. And even as some senior African National Congress (ANC) cadres have found it convenient to be brave now, their silence under the cloak of party solidarity hitherto allowed Mr Zuma to permeate the key joints of the party to the point where now, only Mr Zuma can remove himself. Or time.
Besides, the few ANC grandees that did decide to be heroic lately, underwhelmed spectacularly shortly afterwards: In the aftermath of Mr Zuma’s recent and widely unpopular cabinet reshuffle that saw the back of respected and erstwhile finance minister Pravin Gordhan, three of the top six members of the the ANC criticized Mr Zuma publicly, raising hopes they might finally make concrete moves to rein him in. In a meeting afterwards, it is reported Mr Zuma won the day. It was particularly pitiable to see Gwede Mantashe, the party’s secretary-general with his tail between his legs after much remonstrations only shortly before. Mr Mantashe made some attempts at redeeming himself: that Brian Molefe (disgraced former chief executive of state power utility Eskom) was not made finance minister, Mr Zuma’s preferred choice for the post, is proof that some consultations did take place, he asserted. His gripe had been that Mr Zuma’s picks for his new cabinet did not emanate from the party’s due-process. If only Mr Zuma’s political genius could be put to a noble cause, you wonder. Imagine a man of Mr Zuma’s talents having Nelson Mandela’s heart and courage and Thabo Mbeki’s intellectualism. That would be something now, wouldn’t it?
That said, there are racist motivations behind some of the ongoing anti-Zuma sentiments. From Helen Zille’s (former chair of the white-dominated opposition Democratic Alliance party) views on the purported benefits of colonialism to black South Africans – which by the way is surreptitiously shared by some of her contemporaries – to the not so covert attribution of the deterioration of the country’s infrastructure to black leadership, racism remains rife in the so-called rainbow nation. A white South African judge, it was revealed recently, apparently believes black men are animals, who rape at will and procreate without any sense of responsibility: likely is the case she stretched the law to the extent that she could whenever a case involving a black man came before her. So ultra-leftist parties like Black First Land First (BLF) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) which argue, like Mr Zuma and his ANC party now conveniently do, about the need to right the wrongs of past injustices are not entirely on opportunistic grounds. Still, the newfound black economic radicalism is beginning to prove costly.
Fearing further erosion of governance and likely fiscal deterioration after Mr Zuma’s latest actions, rating agencies S&P Global and Fitch last week downgraded South Africa’s credit rating to junk status. Middle-class South Africans with mortgages to pay and car payments to make know the implications of the downgrades on their wallets. Poor South Africans, however, could not care less. Explanations such as how higher debt costs constitute an opportunity cost to the funding of pro-poor programmes is hard to fathom by a section of society that mostly looks to monthly welfare payments from the government. Since that won’t stop, it is hard for them to understand what the hoopla is all about. The narrative from Mr Zuma’s camp, however, resonates more with them. Argument such as “white monopoly capital” trying to blackmail poor Mr Zuma is one they can easily identify with. Unsurprisingly, Mr Zuma’s inner circle feels quite relieved.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/will-save-south-africa/