South African politics: 20% woodwork, 80% balancing act, 200% excitement

No one doubts that 2010 will be a momentous year for South Africa. But in politics, exciting things have been taking place for the past two years – specifically since Thabo Mbeki‘s ousting from the African National Congress (ANC). Then, barely 10 months later Mbeki was forced to resign, after the Pietermaritzburg Court ruled that the corruption charges against Zuma were unfounded and that they, furthermore, had been politically motivated – we have to remember here that these charges were central to the power struggle between Mbeki and Zuma and the reason for Mbeki’s dismissal of Zuma as deputy president in 2005. Finally, the change in power was confirmed with Zuma’s election as South African president in April 2009.
In political parties’ terms, this was not a surprise, as the ANC’s majority in South Africa has not been challenged by any other party – and is not likely to be anytime soon. The most important risk to the ANC’s continuity in power, as numerous analysts point out, comes from internal fighting and divisions. One such challenge has already emerged, although not along the expected lines – most people saw as most likely a left-leaning block led by COSATU and SACP to challenge the ANC – but as a result of the Mbeki-Zuma fighting. Late in 2008 CoPe (Congress of the People) was created, and although it got relatively good result for a newcomer, it was far away from presenting a serious challenge to the ANC.
Nevertheless, if for party politics Zuma’s taking over from Mbeki as president has not mattered much, there are many other aspects in which this Zunami! it has meant a total change. First, there is a clear difference in the backgrounds (both in class and ethnic terms) of Zuma and Mbeki. Zuma has become the first Zulu president of South Africa, taking over from Mbeki, a Xhosa (like Mandela). Also, while Mandela belonged to a royal lineage among the Xhosas, and Mbeki was born into an educated middle class family – both his parents were theachers, and Mbeki earned his BA and Master’s degree in the U.K. (Sussex University), Zuma finished only his primary school. But, despite this clear differences, it is in their character that the starker contrast betweem Zuma and Mbeki appears.
Mbeki always had a serious presence, sometimes seeming even cold and aloof – perhaps even arrogant. He was a theoretical man, used to political dealings to be made secretly, outside from the spotlight, as they had been done by him (with great success) in exile and during the apartheid transition. For those interested in Mbeki’s figure and his life, I can recommend Mark Gevisser’s book “A Legacy of Liberation”. Zuma is the total opposite to this: he’s much more extroverted, laughs often, and has a charismatic – some may say populist-leaning – personality. For a more detailed analysis of his policies, you can read this recent special Concerned African Scholars bulletin.
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Thabo Mbeki
Nothing however, encapsulates this difference better than their dress-code and their different public behaviour. Mbeki “black englishman” looks – elegant suits, pipe-smoker and a calm on-stage presence could not be further away from Zuma’s “Umshini wami” (“bring me my machine gun”) chanting in political meetings (see the video here)onstage dancing, and his use of traditional clothing. Zuma is also a polygamist, and last Monday he married Thobeka Madiba,his 5th wife – you can see pictures of the ceremony here. And is Zuma’s character wasn’t colourful enough, a new figure has emerged in South African politics, who’s drawing most of the media attention: ANC Youth League (ANCYL) president Julius Malema. Malema’s controversial remarks, often with a racial dimension, have been one of the talking points in South Africa in 2009 – together with his disappointing highschool grades, and his flashy life-style.
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President Zuma dances during the campaign for the presidential elections (Photo Jonathan Clayton)

But behind Zuma’s charismatic presence and Malema’s politically incorrect comments, South Africa faces more serious challenges, which its politicians need to take care. Not only the global economic crisis, which is affecting South Africa greatly, but especially, the response to the crisis that is expected from politicians. Zuma came to power promising a left-turn in social policies, seeking to incorporate those left behing by Mbeki’s neo-liberal orientation. But he also promised foreign investors and national capital that not much would change. This squaring of the circle appears as something impossible, and the disaffection gripping society may soon be reflected on politicians. The tripartite alliance (ANC, COSATU, SACP) is likely to suffer and, according to comentator William Gumede, a reallignment is already taking place. At present, the left flank of the Alliance – SACP, COSATU – is dissapointed with Zuma’s government, whom they helped to power; and they would like to do something about it (a new “party of the left”?) but their social base is weaker than ever. Winning the support of “new poor” (not-unionised, informal workers, and those unemployed) remains the key challenge for the left. But this constituency is also being wooed by an emerging “nationalist-populist-traditionalist block” (Gumede), who’s benefiting from Zuma’s popularity and of whom Malema’s ANCYL can be perceived as their leader. If Malema wants to be a serious candidate to a good position however, most people agree that he must learn the trade and tone down most of his interventions this coming year. A taste of whay may be hapening to South African politics from here to the ANC 2012 Centenary conference if the rift between the left block and the populist block continues, can be seen in the recent incident at the SACP conference, when Malema was heckled, booed and criticised for his lifestyle. To this, he responded by storming off and calling for the ANC to take actions. Now, a similar treatment from the ANCYL audience to SACP leaders is feared at the Kimberly conference happening today, something that has been tried to be avoided by a number of talks this Christmas seeking to bridge the rifts within the Alliance. We’ll see what happens today but, there is no doubt that the excitement in South African politics is far from ending soon. Interesting times do lie ahead!
South African politics: 20% woodwork, 80% balancing act, 200% excitement

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