Jacob Zuma and his ruling African National Congress are likely to win South Africa's vote today, after successfully turning this election into a face-off between the country's well-off blacks and whites and its poor black majority. That majority will likely sweep Zuma into office. Little has changed for them since the country first become democratic in 1994.
Zuma has successfully portrayed himself as 'poor', drawing parallels between the marginalization of poor South African blacks and his personal marginalization by the administration of former President Thabo Mbeki. He was deputy president in that administration, and Mbeki's close ally, until being sacked for alleged corruption in 2005.
His campaign has distanced him from that government's failures, portraying his faction of the ANC, which is now in charge, as a different party altogether - especially when it comes to corruption. That's a shift well-timed with a dramatic change in the mood of the South African poor, who are fed up with poverty and are demanding their share of the promised economic dividends of democracy. Some poorer South Africans are blaming democracy itself for their marginalization, rather than government incompetence, leadership indifference and infighting within the ANC.
South Africa is about to face the full brunt of the global financial crisis, with rising job losses across the economy. Yet, neither the ANC nor the opposition parties have proposed any remedies with time frames on how to tackle those problems. Right now the glue that holds the different groups within the ANC family together is not a consensus over policies, direction of the country or ideology, but getting Zuma elected president. In order to capture the presidency of South Africa, Zuma has amassed a disparate coalition by promising every group what they want to hear, even though many of those promises are diametrically opposed. Some are going to be disappointed. Dashed expectations and infighting in the Zuma coalition over how to address South Africa's urgent problems under a Zuma presidency may trigger another fracture of the ANC.
Zuma is unlikely to have the honeymoon period that previous ANC governments had. If Zuma does not deliver, the poor will turn against him just as they did to Mbeki. How Zuma will respond to such pressure to deliver in an economic downturn will determine the future of South Africa.
Zuma's initial actions are not encouraging. Not yet formally in power, Zuma has copied many of the bad things of the Mbeki era from which he has distanced himself. Zuma waves away the 16 formidable corruption charges against him as "manufactured" by Mbeki. He continually highlights what he calls Mbeki's twisting of democratic institutions for personal political gain - hence Mbeki's attempt to derail Zuma, a "poor peasant" and a "champion" of the poor, from becoming president.
The ANC's leadership has launched an all-fronts campaign to drop these corruption charges. They have closed down the anti-crime unit that brought the charges, without consulting parliament, which should have decided the issue. They have gone on the attack against media critics and judges who ruled against him - last week the argument was that the country's highest court, the Constitutional Court, is "not God". His supporters have launched a drive to purge all Zuma critics from the ANC, government and state-owned companies. Critics are labelled as 'coping' (even if they are not), in reference to being COPE, the Congress of the People, a breakaway opposition party. They have also subtly played the ethnic card, which has encouraged some Zulu speakers to support him merely because of the fact that he is a fellow Zulu speaker, rather than because of his record. He has made plenty of promises of new policies and institutions, but given few specifics, let alone a timetable for when promises will be delivered or an estimate of their costs.
In the meantime, COPE and other opposition parties have not focused on the issues of the black poor, in the townships, rural areas or shantytowns - the group whose support is crucial to win elections. They have been unable to undermine Zuma and the ANC's message that they are part of a rich black and white cabal opposed to the black poor. COPE and the current main opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), have attacked Zuma's compromised morals and attacks on democratic institutions. Those arguments had some resonance in the black and white middle classes, but fell on deaf ears to those living in shacks, without jobs or food. The poor cling desperately to Zuma's promises of free healthcare, education and social grants - all desperately needed, for sure, but all promises without details. Not even the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Zuma's ally, has pegged their support to him to delivery targets and clear time frames.
But Zuma can yet be successful, and prove his detractors wrong, if he uses the best talents of all South Africans, from all races, whether critical of him or not, rather than rewarding incompetent cronies, dodgy financial backers or those from the same ethnic group. He must not only talk about defending the country's constitution, democratic institutions and values, but actually do so in his everyday behavior. As Zuma assumes the presidency, he will do well to take the warning of former ANC stalwart Mac Maharaj to heart: "It is actions that are going to inspire confidence."
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