Power, Poverty and Populism: Jacob Zuma and the Unmaking of Thabo Mbeki

Posted on: 18th January 2008  |
Author: Anthony Egan SJ
Category: Politics and current affairs
Tags: South Africa, Jacob Zuma, Thabo Mbeki

Anthony Egan of the Jesuit Institute - South Africa, on the ANC's new leader and why his election marks a sea change for the African National Congress.

election of Jacob Zuma on 18th December 2007, to the presidency of
the African National Congress (ANC) at Polokwane, Limpopo Province, heralds the
end of the political road for South Africa's incumbent president, Thabo Mbeki.
Not only was Mbeki soundly beaten (1505 votes to Zuma's 2329), all of Mbeki's
top supporters were trounced in the race for the National Executive Committee
In South African terms, where for a variety of reasons the ANC is the one-party
dominant power in parliament, this is not so much a change in leadership as a
change of government. Through a combination of factors - Mbeki's autocratic
style of clinging to power name="_ednref2" title="">[2],
mass poverty despite macroeconomic growth, and a well-orchestrated left wing
populism on the part of Zuma - a seismic shift has occurred within the ANC
which may have repercussions for South Africa. The controversy surrounding
Zuma, notably corruption charges pending against him, also raises some
important ethical questions about his possible presidency of South Africa

extent of the shift can be seen by the results of the NEC election. The top
positions reveal a clean sweep for the Zuma contingent:

ANC President

Jacob Zuma - 2329   [60.7% of votes cast]

Thabo Mbeki - 1505

Deputy President

Kgalema Motlanthe - 2346   [61.9% of votes cast]

Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma - 1444


Gwede Mantashe - 2378   [62.4% of votes cast]

Mosiuoa Lekota - 1432

National Chairperson

Baleka Mbete - 2326   [61.2% of votes cast]

Joel Netshitenzhe - 1475


Mathews Phosa - 2320   [62.8% of votes cast]

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka - 1374

Deputy Secretary-General

Thandi Modise - 2304   [61.3% of votes cast]

Thoko Didiza - 1455

percentages of the victors' votes uncannily call to mind the 1994 South African
General Election, in which the ANC came within a few percentage points of a
two-thirds majority. Many of the key figures mentioned above have a history of
conflict with Thabo Mbeki - Mathews Phosa was briefly accused of plotting
against Mbeki; Kgalema Motlanthe, Baleka Mbete and Gwede Mantashe have crossed
swords with Mbeki over policy in the past; not to mention the intense rivalry
between Zuma and Mbeki. In effect, what we see is an opposition victory from
within, with an imminent transfer of power. Recalling political analysts
insights that one of the great tests of democratisation comes when a party of
liberation is first voted out of office, it will be interesting to see how from
within the dominant party the victory of the opposition, in effect the change
of government, will be received name="_ednref3" title="">[3].

why did this happen? After all, on the face of it Thabo Mbeki's almost ten
years in office have been on the whole a resounding success. Unlike the often
all-too-forgiving Mandela approach - where incompetence in governance was
treated with too many second chances - Thabo Mbeki ran a tight ship. He demanded
that (most of) his cabinet 'delivered or departed', and oversaw with Finance
Minister Trevor Manuel economic policies that have made the country prosper at
a level not seen since the early 1970s. The urbane and highly intelligent Mbeki
gave South Africa a high profile on the world stage (as Mandela had done) and
presented the country as a local economic and political superpower.

there were problems: Mbeki's, to put it gently, inconsistency regarding
HIV-AIDS; his fierce support for a Health Minister viewed by most as an
incompetent; and his failure to take a strong moral stance against the gross
human rights violations within neighbouring Zimbabwe. Occasionally, too, he
seemed personally affronted by criticism of his policies and style of governance
- egged on by an increasingly small cadre of ever more shrill apologists for
all he did. Though he certainly did not encourage them, he also did not
discourage their equation of social criticism with lack of patriotism and
sometimes, if the critics were white, with racism.[4]

points to one of the key factors in his defeat on December 18th: power. On one level the defeat of Mbeki
and his supporters at Polokwane can be ascribed to a leadership style that
centralised political power on the President. However articulate and
intelligent, Mbeki's leadership has been characterised as aristocratic and even
autocratic. With Mbeki brooking little opposition, many ANC members
increasingly felt that with few exceptions the Cabinet was no more than a group
of assistants carrying out Mbeki's plans. However good they were this flew in
the face of the participatory model of decision-making that has become
characteristic of the ANC as a party, particularly those who emerged from 1980s
internal resistance movements like the United Democratic Front and the trade
union movements.

to this, there has been a perception among ANC members that Mbeki was a person
not to be crossed: at best one could be hauled over the presidential coals for
disloyalty, at worst there were incidents where talk of 'conspiracy' was
bandied around. The recipients of such attention were, notably, popular ANC
figures who may have been seen as a threat to Mbeki (including new
Treasurer-General Mathews Phosa) or who were vocal opponents of the Mbeki
government's neoliberal economic policies. Many of the latter came from the
South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade
Unions (COSATU) who were also angry at Mbeki's 'quiet diplomacy' with Robert
Mugabe's authoritarian practices in Zimbabwe. It is this left wing of the ANC
Alliance, together with the ANC Youth League, who mobilised against Mbeki at

political power has unambiguously shifted since 1994, economic power is more
complex. Most observers concur that the policies of affirmative action and
black economic empowerment pursued by the ANC Government to reduce inequality
have in fact served to create a black middle and upper class. With the 'old'
elite they now share in the prosperity associated with South Africa's re-entry
into the global economy. Observer Richard Calland, in his book Anatomy of South Africa, has called this
an alliance of economic benefit. name="_ednref5" title="">[5]

Such an alliance has not been without tensions. Although it
enjoys over 70% of the popular vote, the ANC is itself a political party
representing a diversity of political interests and ideologies. Though the
dominant section within the ANC government prior to December 18th
has heartily endorsed the new economic dispensation[6],
at its grassroots the income disparities and reality of poverty drive many of
its members in opposite directions.

The South African Communist Party (SACP), which has for
decades been an integral part of the grand alliance that is the ANC, is
increasingly critical of the neo-liberal policies of President Thabo Mbeki.
Together with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), they have
become the de facto voice within the ANC of its overwhelmingly poor majority of
members and supporters. We should not forget that though the ANC leadership
dress well, drive expensive cars and live in the formerly lily-white upper
middle class suburbs, the majority of card-carrying ANC members - the majority
of those at Polokwane - are poor. ANC supporters and the poor are demanding increased
and greater quality service delivery, job creation and protection, as well as
reduced disparity between upper and lower incomes. In the last few years, this
has led to increased protest actions around the country and to what appears to
be a leadership and policy battle within the ANC itself.[7]
Just as wealth is linked to power, so poverty is linked to protest. And
addressing poverty adequately must inevitably entail certain realignments of
power by those who govern - to the benefit of the poor, we submit, and to a
more long term vision not trapped in the current neo-liberal globalist mindset.

Thus power is a factor closely aligned to poverty which in
South Africa takes on many forms. The frequent vision of homeless beggars on
our streets is the most obvious. But there is hidden poverty: of subsistence
farming deep in the rural areas; of workers on many commercial farms; of
unemployment (ranging, depending on how you measure, it from 25 - 40% of
adults), and the poverty of those who are employed but earn income that does
not meet their basic needs. It is from such poor communities that a young, then
illiterate, son of a rural policeman named Jacob Zuma joined the ANC in 1959,
gaining a primary school education while imprisoned between 1963 and 1973 on
Robben Island.

Writing in the respected HSRC survey State of the Nation 2004-2005,
Benjamin Roberts title="">[8] reported
that in 2002 30.8% of children under 17 years went hungry regularly - an 0.9%
decrease from 1995, despite a significant attempt by expanded government
social services aimed at reducing food insecurity in the country. Many private
welfare agencies have declined, their largely overseas-funded budgets slashed
after the 1994 democratisation. Public sector welfare services are often
uneven in their delivery, suffering from over-stretched demand, inadequate
staffing and logistical capacity, and at times elements of corruption. Analyst
Doreen Atkinson's recent observation name="_ednref9" title="">[9]
seems accurate, that though at times the sheer level of poverty and needs overwhelms
service delivery such services at local level suffer from endemic corruption,
inefficiency and widespread public perception that civil servants enjoy a 'fat
cat' lifestyle.

In 2001, economist Sampie Terreblanche indicated[10],
the 16.6% 'bourgeois elite' earned 72% of the national income. The 'petit
bourgeoisie' (16.6% of population)
earned 17.2%. The remaining population - comprising what he calls the upper,
middle and lower lower class - had to make do with the rest. Recent surveys and
analyses show that the income disparity within population groups has grown
across the board, the most dramatic being that between the new black bourgeois
elite (generously estimated at around 2 million people) and the roughly 11.5
million 'lower lower class'. The percentages, allowing for some economic
improvements since Terreblanche's study, are uncanny: the percentage of South
Africa's poor and the 60-64% of the vote cast at Polokwane for Zuma nearly
coincide. The election of Zuma and his allies can be seen as a reaction to such
persistent inequality, a vote of no confidence in the domestic economic
policies of the last ten to twelve years. The grassroots of the ANC, the poor
who have benefited little from neoliberal macro-economics, from black economic
empowerment and from affirmative action, have voted in what might be seen as
the election that matters. In a General Election few felt they had a choice:
dissatisfied with opposition parties they could either vote or abstain. Many,
including members of the new social protest movements[11],
had voted out of loyalty to the ideals of the ANC - and continued to protest
against those they'd elected. Polokwane should be seen as a vote for change.

Though Jacob Zuma can no longer be seen as part of the poor
- and indeed it may be said that he has solidly entered the middle or upper
middle class - his public discourse has consistently been aligned with the
poor. He and his comrades within the Alliance - the Communist Party, COSATU and
sections of the ANCYL - are the voice of populism, the third element in his
victory. It could be argued that throughout its history, the ANC has always
been a middle class organisation that with increasing frequency over the last
fifty years adopted a populist tone href="#_edn12" name="_ednref12" title="">[12].
It won the 1994, 1999 and 2004 elections on a combination of populism, its
liberation struggle credentials and the fact that no viable mass-based
opposition party existed. Zuma's election as president of the ANC can be seen
as a popular expression of desire for an alternative to Mbeki. In line with
populist presidents in countries like Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, it might
be seen as a grassroots expression of resistance to neoliberal globalisation
and an expression that 'another world is possible'.

Politically, populism is a two-edged sword. It offers great
potential for nation-building and socio-economic reform, but can also take on
the form and appearance of mob rule. This mob dimension was seen at Zuma's rape
trial and acquittal in 2005-2006, at numerous rallies, and in the uncharacter-istically
aggressive behaviour of his supporters at Polokwane, where his supporters sang
an old ANC struggle song 'Umshini Wami' (which translates as 'Bring me my
machine gun'). This is disturbing for many. Similarly a kind of sectarian
'cultural' populism, expressed in some of Zuma's utterances and attitudes to
women and homosexuality, is unsettling to those who value highly the principles
of equality, non-sexism and comprehensive non-discrimination enshrined in our
Constitution and Bill of Rights.

What then of the future? Will Zuma become President of
South Africa in 2009? How will that affect us?

Zuma's presidency depends on two factors: whether he's
convicted of corruption and whether the ANC splinters. The former factor is a
possibility. The National Prosecuting Authority is pressing ahead with a case
against him and a trial is set for later this year, possibly in August. If he is jailed, it could split the ANC with
his supporters demanding his release, guilty or not. Even if he goes to prison,
Zuma's influence will remain. With a pro-Zuma dominated ANC NEC, Mbeki will not
be able to have control over his successor. At best he might be able to get a
compromise candidate - which he should perhaps have done in June. If Zuma stays
out of prison, he will be President of South Africa by the end of 2009.

The other - outside - chance is a split in the ANC, with
two parties competing, one led by Zuma or his successor, the other by an Mbeki
loyalist. If the 'Mbeki Group' is not wiped out at the polls - further
political fallout from Mbeki's grassroots unpopularity - it will only likely be
able to govern as part of a coalition, probably with the Democratic Alliance.
The strongly Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) would link up with the
'Zuma Group'. Paradoxically, it is conceivable that the socially very
conservative African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) might have the handful
of seats that could make or break a government. The prospect of such social and political instability is deeply
disturbing, as followers of Italian or Israeli politics will recognise.

Assuming Zuma becomes President of South Africa in 2009,
how will that affect the country as a whole? Women's and gender rights groups
will watch carefully, hoping that the gains made since 1994 are not blown aside
on a wave of masculinist populism. More generally, the pressure on Zuma to
deliver immediate populist aspirations will be enormous, with associated
temptation to radical economic reforms. However a Hugo Chavez-style populist
socialism will not work - not least because South Africa has no vast supply of
oil, and our mineral revolution (with the exception perhaps of platinum) has
started to slow down. Zuma seems aware of this fear. His visits to various
countries promising that he will not radically change the South African economy
suggest he realises its potential negative consequences, although how this may
play out in practical politics is anybody's guess. Some are already saying that
he is becoming a political chameleon.

The ethical dimension of Zuma's victory is also complex.
How did a party elect someone facing corruption charges? The answer lies in the
tendency, noted by former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein, of the ANC to defend its own[13].
Many MPs, supporters of Mbeki and Zuma alike, were implicated in a corrupt arms
deal. Feinstein's evidence suggests that many other ANC notables made far more
from the deal than Zuma. Zuma is the only parliamentarian under investigation
however, a fact suggesting a political undertone. While we may be deeply concerned
about the possibility of a person proven to be corrupt running South Africa, we
need perhaps to consider the bigger picture.

It's not that one should absolve corruption (if indeed the
accusations against Zuma are proven). Nor should one ignore the fact that,
though he was acquitted of rape, his conduct in the events that led to the
charges manifest irresponsibility and patent male chauvinism. Zuma is far from
a model of morality that many would hold up to the light. Yet, we note that
even most of the ANC Women's League, fiercely critical of him for his personal
conduct, voted for him. Why? The answer, I think, is clearly that poverty and
the belief that Zuma offers the poor a better deal than the Mbeki group trumped
personal morality. Zuma expresses what the Catholic Church calls the
'preferential option for the poor'.

Whether he can - or will - deliver on this promise remains
to be seen.


Anthony Egan SJ is a member of the Jesuit Institute - South Africa
in Johannesburg. He also teaches part time at St Augustine College of South
Africa (Johannesburg) and St John Vianney Seminary in Pretoria.


 The Jesuit Institute - South Africa

name="_edn1" title="">[1] Moshoeshoe Monare, 'Total rejection of Mbeki
as ANC veers to the Left', The Star 19
December 2007.

name="_edn2" title="">[2] John Carlin, 'Mbeki has abused power on a
grand scale', The Star, 19 December

name="_edn3" title="">[3] It is customary that the president of the
ruling party, who is normally first on the parliamentary party list during
elections, is made President of the country. Had Mbeki won, this would have
been impossible since the Constitution limits the national president to two
terms in office. The ANC NEC would have chosen a presidential candidate.

name="_edn4" title="">[4] Unlike the Mbeki praise-singers, it is
useful to read Mark Gevisser, Thabo
Mbeki: The Dream Deferred
(Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2007) for an
insightful account of Thabo Mbeki's life and thought. Based on research over
nine years, Gevisser presents a portrait of a highly complex personality, part
diplomat, part intellectual, part urbane, part deeply insecure.

name="_edn5" title="">[5] Richard Calland, Anatomy of South Africa: Who Holds the power? (Cape Town: Zebra
Press, 2006).

name="_edn6" title="">[6] Advisors to the Mbeki government continue to
insist that the route taken by the ANC - a growth-oriented, globalisation
friendly market economy with provisions for the poor - is not only the right
approach, one that has built a
stronger economy, but in many respects the only viable option. See: Alan
Hirsch, Seasons of Hope: Economic Reform
under Mandela and Mbeki
(Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu Natal
Press, 2005).

name="_edn7" title="">[7] For background to this internal tension,
see: William Mervyn Gumede, Thabo Mbeki
and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC
(Cape Town: Zebra Press, 2005).

name="_edn8" title="">[8] Benjamin Roberts, ' 'Empty stomachs, empty
pockets': poverty and inequality in post-apartheid South Africa', State of the Nation.South Africa 2004-2005,
edited by John Daniel, Roger Southall & Jessica Lutchman, (Cape Town: HSRC
Press, 2005), 479-510, detail at p.491.

name="_edn9" title="">[9] Doreen Atkinson, 'Talking to the streets:
has developmental local government failed in South Africa?' State of the Nation. South Africa 2007,
edited by Sakhela Buhlungu, John Daniel, Roger Southall & Jessica Lutchman,
(Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2007), pp 53-77.

name="_edn10" title="">[10] Sampie Terreblanche, A History of Inequality in
South Africa, 1652-2002
, (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press,
2002), p. 36.

name="_edn11" title="">[11] For a survey see: Richard Ballard, Adam
Habib & Imran Valodia (eds), Voices
of Protest: Social Movements in Post-Apartheid South Africa

(Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu Natal Press, 2006).

name="_edn12" title="">[12] See: Dale T McKinley, The ANC and the Liberation Struggle (London: Pluto Press, 1997).

name="_edn13" title="">[13] Andrew Feinstein, After the Party: A Personal and Political Journey inside the ANC
(Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2007).



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