Ten years ago this morning Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, handed over the leadership of the country’s ruling African National Congress to Thabo Mbeki, his dapper silver-haired deputy, with a trenchant warning. “One temptation of a leader elected unopposed is that he may use that powerful position to settle scores with his detractors, marginalise them and surround himself with yes-men and -women”, he told thousands of ANC delegates in the old Boer war town of Mafikeng. “A leader must keep the forces together but you cannot do that unless you allow dissent.” Mr Mbeki stared into the middle distance, clearly irritated by the advice.
On Wednesday, however, those words came back to haunt him as South Africa awoke to the news that the party to which he had devoted his life had abruptly repudiated him and – especially, his opponents said – his domineering approach to governing. He cut a sad and lonely figure on Tuesday night as he walked off the stage in the sweaty marquee where this extraordinary revolution has climaxed. His defeat by Jacob Zuma, his populist former ally, in the election for the party’s presidency reflected a rebellion that has been simmering within the ANC for at least two years. It was fuelled by grievances over Mr Mbeki’s business-friendly economic policies and also his autocratic style of leadership. Given Mr Zuma’s embroilment in a corruption scandal and his colourful past, the outcome is also hugely controversial. After five years under Mr Mandela and then eight and a half years under Mr Mbeki, the second phase of the post-apartheid story has begun.
Mr Zuma, who at 65 is the same age as Mr Mbeki, still has to survive an expected trial on corruption charges next year if he is to lead South Africa after the next general election in 2009 – which the party is on course to win easily. But his aides indicate that he expects to have a say in government decisions from here on in. He faces two pressing tasks: to unite the party and to disprove the sceptics about his abilities and intentions. In particular, business people are looking for a signal on how he intends to address the expectations of his core constituency, the poor, while not alarming foreign investors.
Fund managers have been broadly reassured by his insistence that he will not push for a radical shift to the left. They also accept he is by tradition a centrist ANC thinker rather than a socialist. But they continue to fret that his debt to the trade unions and the South African Communist party, whose support has fuelled his comeback from political near-oblivion two years ago, may in the medium term lead the ANC to jettison Mr Mbeki’s free-market policies and commitment to fiscal discipline. A briefing note from the local offshoot of JPMorgan, the US investment bank, said on Wednesday: “Our economists remain concerned that a stagnation of reform or a change in the direction of policy could impair the inflow of direct investment and portfolio investment that is necessary for South Africa’s current account deficit to be financed in the short term.” There is particular interest in the future of Trevor Manuel, the finance minister, who has been acclaimed in the west for his handling of the nation’s finances but has become a lightning rod for criticism of South Africa’s economic record by Mr Zuma’s allies. Business people are watching to see if he will be re-elected to the national executive committee on Thursday. “I am getting a lot of questions about whether Trevor Manuel’s position on the NEC is safe. He is such a clear and obvious point person for the top-down macro-economic policies that have found favour with foreign investors over the last decade,” says Jeff Gable, head of research at Absa Capital.
Mr Zuma’s supporters said on Wednesday the main change would be of emphasis rather than policy. “We are not naive,” says Che Matlhako, a senior official in the SACP. “We are not expecting socialism overnight.” As part of a concerted charm offensive, union and SACP leaders lined up to deny they would be seeking cabinet posts in a possible Zuma-led government in 2009. But his allies do also make clear they expect a new national debate over policy, in particular how the country’s economic boom of recent years could do more to improve the lives of the poor. “We think this [Mr Mbeki’s] flirtation with neo-liberal policies has been absolutely disastrous for our development,” Zwelinzima Vavi, the head of Cosatu, the largest union movement, told the Financial Times ahead of the ANC’s conference.
Mr Manuel is the first to admit frustration with the performance of local government in disbursing the fruits of his economic management. Under his stewardship, South Africa’s economy has expanded by an annual average of 5.2 per cent in the last three years as it has recorded its longest period of uninterrupted growth since the second world war. Yet on the ground in recent months there have been protests in townships complaining about slow progress in the provision of basic services. In a further reminder of the scale of the task facing the government, official statistics last week showed that the rate of job creation slowed in the last quarter and is not enough to meet the government’s target of halving unemployment by 2014. But while willingly conceding that the ANC needs to find ways of overcoming bottlenecks, Treasury officials fear that having labelled Mr Mbeki’s policies as favouring only a business elite, Mr Zuma’s allies will turn back the clock and risk jeopardising the country’s steady economic record.
As they partied into the early hours of Wednesday, singing and dancing, Mr Zuma’s supporters argued that the most important lesson to be drawn from the upheaval was not about policy but accountability. “We were saying we could not be Zimbabwe. No, no, not here – in South Africa, we are better than that,” says a senior party member who compares Mr Mbeki’s failed bid for a third term as ANC leader with President Robert Mugabe’s domination of Zimbabwe for the last 27 years. “Thabo should have listened to us. But he did not. He thought he knew best. Now the ANC has taken back control of the party.” With the ANC facing no significant threat at the polls from South Africa’s small opposition parties, the rebellion is indeed a sign of a healthy democratic pulse in the traditionally disciplined ruling party. It also bucks the trend among former African liberation movements, most of which have ossified once in power, and can be seen as a sign of the ANC’s evolution from liberation movement into political party.
Mac Maharaj, one of Mr Mandela’s cabinet ministers who fell out with Mr Mbeki, says debate had begun to “close down” in the last few years. “Now there is a message coming from the grassroots that there has been a disconnection between the party branches and the party leadership,” he adds. “It is a very positive thing for democracy.” The expressionless faces of the Mbeki-ite cabinet ministers and aides told the other side of the story. In a sign of how out of touch his inner circle has become with the grassroots, one of the best-known ministers on the international stage commented just before the result that Mr Mbeki would “win by a few hundred votes”. As it was, Mr Zuma and five other officials were each swept in with about 60 per cent of the votes of the nearly 4,000 delegates.
A first indication of how Mr Zuma intends to lead comes on Thursday, at his closing speech to delegates at the five-yearly leadership conference. His aides highlight his reputation as a reconciler. They point to his record in helping to cement peace in his region of KwaZulu-Natal, which was riven by a low-level civil war between the ANC and the traditionalist Inkatha Freedom party in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They also attest to his patient attempts to broker peace in Burundi. “He is not a man of revenge nor one who harbours grudges,” says Mo Shaik, an old friend. One of Mr Mbeki’s allies recalls that when Mr Zuma was deputy president between 1999 and 2005 he was always happy to find time to listen to unionists and leftwingers whom Mr Mbeki had spurned. But this reputation for reconciliation will be put to the test in the new party leader’s dealings with Mr Mbeki.
Relations between them have been poisonous since before 2005, when Mr Zuma was fired as the country’s deputy president after his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, a younger brother of Mo, was convicted of corruption over a multi-billion dollar arms deal. Mr Zuma’s allies have long claimed state resources were misused to pursue subsequent rape charges laid against him by the daughter of a family friend. He was acquitted of rape last year and a corruption trial relating to his adviser’s case collapsed on a technicality. But prosecutors have made clear they are close to charging him again. Most in the ANC expect this case – and probable tensions between the two camps – to overshadow politics next year. Mr Zuma’s allies have indicated that they would be willing to call a vote of no confidence in the president and end his term early if they think he and his allies are conspiring against them.
Investors fear there could be paralysis as the national and party presidents vie for power. Many analysts suspect that, initially at least, Mr Zuma might surprise his critics, particularly those abroad whose only impression of him comes from his history of populist comments and his supporters’ penchant for singing the old anti-apartheid song, “Bring me my machine gun”. He can be expected to be much more outspoken than Mr Mbeki about South Africa’s high levels of violent crime and its HIV/Aids crisis. He has hinted that he will be more critical in public of Mr Mugabe. But even so, his messy recent past makes many elders in the ANC describe his election as nothing to celebrate and lament that his record hardly befits the successor of such legends as Mr Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Chief Albert Luthuli. In his rape trial he made a series of hugely ill-advised comments about the role of women and about HIV/Aids. Helen Zille, the spirited leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, told state radio on Wednesday that his election had “brought disgrace to the nation of South Africa”.
Privately, many ANC intellectuals hope the corruption trial will prevent Mr Zuma from assuming the nation’s presidency. Thus the country would have what many in business see as the best of both worlds: neither a third term for Mr Mbeki nor a first for Mr Zuma. Under those circumstances, Kgalema Motlanthe, the party’s avuncular new deputy, would be the favourite to become the presidential candidate. But it is not out of the question that with Mr Zuma out of the running, Cyril Ramaphosa, the politician turned businessman who was Mr Mandela’s first choice as deputy, would challenge him. He was one of the only members of the national executive looking at ease in recent days. By cannily opting to stay out of the race, he – almost alone in the upper echelons of the party – has emerged from this bruising struggle with his reputation unbesmirched. Or such was the speculation on Wednesday, as Mr Zuma’s supporters celebrated in the rain.
But first Mr Zuma’s new team faces a more immediate task. One of his closest allies says it will be hard to keep his “coalition of the disaffected” together. Ten years after Mr Mandela’s unheeded warning, Mr Mbeki may not be tempted to give advice to his triumphant rival on Thursday, in his own “handing over the baton” speech. But if he does, Mr Zuma should listen. Only his diehard fans would disagree that there is a rocky road ahead.
‘He is ready to say what does not work’
Residents of Nkandla are convinced that Jacob Zuma, their district’s most famous son, understands the gritty realities of their lives. It is this perception, played out on a national scale, that has driven him to the top of the African National Congress and could make him South Africa’s leader, write William MacNamara and William Wallis. High in the remote and hilly grasslands of KwaZulu-Natal, Nkandla, where Mr Zuma was born to a subsistence farming family, has the second highest unemployment rate in South Africa. HIV infections afflict more than one-third of a community whose men are compelled to leave home in search of work in the cities, often bringing back a disease that debilitates them, their wives and unborn children. In the local market, the greatest activity is at the liquor store, where young men line up in search of distraction.
It is a measure of how removed the district is from the gloss of an ongoing economic boom that Joseph Ntuli, a local rubbish collector, recalls the days of F.W. de Klerk, the apartheid era’s last president, as a rosier time. “I am feeding five members of my family on a pension of R800 ($116, £58, €80) per month,” says an elderly woman in the market, buying a bag of potato wedges for her grandson, who recently lost his job. “We’re always wet,” she says, pointing to a leaking market stall lashed by a rainstorm. “I would vote for the man who fixes this roof.” In the eyes of most Nkandla villagers, the fixer of roofs and other local problems will be Mr Zuma. “He is used to being around the stalls. He understands our problems,” says a woman selling sausages and potatoes, echoing a sentiment that spread through South Africa as the contest for the ANC leadership gathered pace.
Yet in several months of campaigning, Mr Zuma did not elaborate on how he might tackle the country’s many social problems. Much of his support derives instead from his personal charisma: his son-of-the-soil humility is in contrast to President Thabo Mbeki’s reputation as a cerebral, out-of-touch politician. Across KwaZulu-Natal and other provinces, Mr Zuma’s ancestry is another source of support. His allies have played up his Zulu roots, horrifying many elders in the ANC, which prides itself on rising above tribal differences. An implicit message has been that it is time for a change from the ethnic Xhosas – including Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Mr Mbeki – who have dominated the party in recent decades. But Mr Zuma’s regular immersion in Zulu traditions has proved appealing for a less controversial reason. As a politician he appears comfortable in his own skin. “Behind the technocracy of the current dispensation, people want to see socio-cultural life acknowledged,” says Pearl Sithole, a researcher of rural issues at the Human Sciences Research Council in Durban. “To some people, Zuma offers an acknowledgment that there are social values on the ground that can be local and positive and that still empower the community.” Asked what they want from a Zuma presidency, several women in Nkandla express alarm at rising crime and say children need firmer discipline. Says one: “We don’t punish them, so they misbehave.”
Yet a looming danger for Mr Zuma will be his limited ability to satisfy the many demands of the poor people singing his name. Zwelabo Zulu, Nkandla’s mayor, paints a bleak picture of his constituency. Amid rising food and transport costs, parents are struggling to fund an education for their children. Moreover, many children are orphaned by Aids and leave school to look after younger siblings before they have learnt to read. Mr Zulu says the government’s capacity to respond is hampered by a bureaucracy that is inefficient and often blind to the realities of the rural poor. Even if Mr Zuma focuses on these problems, his ability to put in place a stronger social agenda would be limited by the consensus-driven nature of the ANC, Mr Zulu says. “It would be unrealistic for people to expect radical and immediate change.” Yet despite being a member of the Inkatha Freedom party, the Zulu nationalist party that has a history of conflict with the ANC, the mayor throws his full support behind the ANC’s new leader. “He is humble, humble, humble,” says Mr Zulu. “His main strength is an ear ready to listen and to say to colleagues, ‘this does not work’.” Would Mr Zuma’s sense of place lead him to focus his powers on improving his hometown? “The statistics here speak for themselves and they should not be politicised,” Mr Zulu answers. “We have a long way to go before things change for the better.”
Alec Russel in The Financial Times, 19 Décembre 2007