South Africa: On the edge of hope and despair

Worse, Stanley Uys writes, Jacob Zuma is central to its unresolved future

South Africa is on the edge of hope and despair. Worse, Zuma is central to the unresolved future. With strikes bringing almost all municipal services to a halt in the country, the president's backers, Cosatu and the SACP, say they support the unrest. Does this confirm that Zuma will not let Cosatu/SACP push him into a "left" ideology? This column has warned that the Tripartite Alliance (ANC, Cosatu, SACP) will not last much longer. Is this it? In Cape Town, the respected activist Rhoda Kadalie has called on the judiciary and legal profession to resign en masse if Judge John Hlophe is appointed to the Constitutional Court or becomes Chief Justice? As we have asked before, for how much longer can this tension last?

So far, only a tight clique of insiders seem to know whether Zuma will continue with the market-friendly policies where ex-President Thabo Mbeki left them when he was ousted, or shift "leftwards" to the policies over which Cosatu and the SACP warred with Mbeki for the 15 years in which the ANC has been in office. Now maybe Zuma at last will be forced to play his hand - if Cosatu/SACP are trying to cut him off at the knees.

On May 10, Zuma announced his first cabinet - an excessive 34 ministers and 28 deputies. He has been given time to settle in, but more than two months later there are still no real signs of where some of the minsters stand; what the functions of the new ministries are he has created; why there is so much talk of "overlap;" and why Zuma has placed such extraordinary emphasis on "Monitoring... Performance... Intelligence," suggesting not only that surveillance will be everywhere, but that it is needed for some time yet to keep Zuma's enemies at bay.

For someone with no formal education, and tribal habits like polygamy, Zuma is extraordinarily politically adroit. He has survived corruption and rape charges, charmed his way around business leaders nervous about a "socialist" future, and made himself the standard bearer of Cosatu, the SACP and the ANC Youth League, with their unchallenged capacity for raw street demonstrations and strikes, as well as feral intimidation outside High Court doors. Since 2005, some Cosatu and SACP leaders quite openly have disliked Zuma, doubting his reliability, but still they need his populism more than he needs their comradeship. So there is talk of a "collective" behind Zuma helping him with his strategic planning.

Ever since he hit the headlines about three years ago, Zuma has evaded committing himself one way or the other over macro-economics. Apparently, he has charmed many potential investors, although sceptics remind us that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and that since 2005 Zuma has played all sides as the situation demands - benign reassurance one day, calling for his machine gun the next; telling business leaders what they want to hear, and then appearing at rallies in his leopard-skin (symbolically dressed to kill).

All this could be categorised as playing to the audience, leaving analysts to guess at the encryptment; but there are other, more serious moves that point unmistakeably to long-term machinations. To give just one example: the ANC has notified the country's nine provinces that they can be turned into administrative arms of central government, or reduced in numbers through mergers, or abolished altogether. The future of the provinces, according to a cabinet minister, will be decided next year.

On April 22 this year, to its anger, the ANC lost control of the Western Cape to the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA). The DA (which already controls Cape Town council) accordingly believes the ANC's motive is to bring all nine provinces under its control (when apartheid ended there were four provinces). This would require a constitutional change for which the ANC does not have the required majority as yet. It is this obsession with centralisation that the DA finds ominous. For the 96 years of its existence - involuntarily perhaps at first, but purposefully since the "liberation struggle" began - the ANC has been in the grip of this one-party mindset. Until it breaks out of it, South Africa can never be a proper democracy. Traditionally, the ANC has dismantled opposition black groups, or co-opted them, or watched them fade away. Now South Africa is coming face to face with its future.

And as this one-partyism grinds its way destructively through black politics, the ANC piously pitches its ideological rhetoric at the highest moral level, which raises the question - why would the ANC want to retain an orthodox, free-market economy, staffed by free-thinkers, when its political philosophy is fixated on one-party thinking? The minister (quoted earlier) who said the provinces' future would be decided next year, declared: "South Africa is one country...nobody is expected to be out of tune".

The DA responded that removal of the provinces would "predictably exacerbate centralised mismanagement, inefficiency and corruption...remove the space for any other sphere of government to offer the alternative of clean, effective and efficient government...the ANC...are removing checks and balances, one by one, through extending control over independent institutions of state (from the Judiciary to the Public Protector)...the very essence of our constitution is being subverted. The Provinces are not the only target. The 17th Constitution Amendment Bill, currently before Parliament...enables the national government to usurp local government powers, functions, infrastructure and assets. The battle for the Constitution has been joined".

Rising above the various issues listed above, in both immediacy and importance, is the economic direction South Africa will follow - whether it sticks to orthodoxy or swings leftwards. Assuming Zuma, posturing aside, is not fixated on the "left": what are his options?

... Stanley Uys has set the political scene for Zuma to consider his options. George Palmer finds he only has one (see article).

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