Activists debate Zuma presidency

Two anti-apartheid campaigners look at South Africa’s past, present and future.

Zuma’s crowd appeal has eclipsed Thabo Mbeki’s presidency [Reuters]

An imminent change of president, economic woes, criticism concerning foreign policy decision-making: The US may be undergoing such broad turmoil, but so is South Africa, Africa’s democratic figurehead and the largest economy on the continent.

After the forced resignation of Thabo Mbeki as president on Sunday, Jacob Zuma, the populist ANC leader, is virtually certain to fill the top post permanently after April elections.

‘Dangerous character’

But in an interview at her home in a bucolic suburb of Johannesburg in July, Nadine Gordimer, the anti-apartheid novelist whose work earned her a Nobel prize, remained unconvinced by Zuma.

“I fear Mr Zuma becoming president. I fear for the consequences for our country.

“His general temperament and character are very dangerous.

“And his influence is already being seen, otherwise you wouldn’t have youths saying ‘Kill for Zuma, kill for Zuma’.”

Gordimer says there is “a messianic belief in Zuma”. Opposition to him becoming president is lacking both within the ANC – which is supported by about 70 per cent of South Africans and the majority of blacks – and without.

It is only his lack of a parliamentary seat that prevents him from taking the presidency now.

Helen Suzman, the only member of parliament during apartheid rule to oppose the white government’s policies, told Al Jazeera: “I’ve only met Zuma once and his amiability is undeniable. He exudes it.

“He will be populist. He’s popular with the masses, no doubt about it. You watch any rally at which he performs and he takes the whole lot with him.”

With a very different personality to Mbeki, who is seen as austere and aloof, the two men have lost respect for each other in recent years, splitting their party in the process.

Gordimer says that South Africa’s history of inequality has acentuated tendancies to support populist leaders purporting aggressive improvements in people lives.

“You have a lot of young people who don’t see a future for themselves and for whom, even though they have a good president [Mbeki] who has promised that everything is being done, it isn’t being done quickly.”

The 84-year old notes that promises made by the ANC when it took power in 1994 to improve housing and basic services have not been fulfilled.

“So if you have somebody who can get up and start singing, ‘Hand me my AK-47’, you feel: ‘Right, now here’s somebody who has the guts to do things for us and for everyone’,” she says, in reference to Zuma’s patriotic war dances previously on show at political meetings.

“It’s on the evidence of this psychological pattern that Zuma has got to the position that he is in.”

Cry, the beloved

South Africa is beleaguered by high unemployment, estimated at 40 per cent, and is awash with between three to five million immigrants, primarily from neighbouring Zimbabwe.

Mbeki achieved sustained economic growth during his tenure [EPA]

Combined, these polarising elements unleashed a wave of xenophobic violence in May.

The economic, social and political problems plaguing the country towards the end of Mbeki’s nine-year rule precipitated his rapid fall. Forgotten are the heady days of South Africa’s longest period of uninterrupted growth and the rise of the “black diamonds” – the new black middle class – during his tenure.

Gordimer sees one merit of Mbeki’s rule as his embracing of South Africa as an integral part of the African continent.

“Everywhere he has gone in Africa he has not looked at us as a separate enclave. I think that he has done well there and that hasn’t been appreciated.”

But the mistakes of South Africa’s second post-apartheid president mean that few will remember him in exultant terms.

Suzman says that inaction on HIV and Aids (more than five million South Africans  are HIV positive) and in curbing Robert Mubage’s violent Zimbabwean government have dismantled Mbeki’s credibility.

“Mbeki really has been hopeless. His denial of Aids has been disastrous,” she said.

“In Zimbabwe, he has been backing Mugabe throughout. That’s a very shocking example of what South Africa shouldn’t be doing as a leader in Africa.”

Gordimer, an ANC member, agrees: “I can’t understand how someone of his worldliness has been so soft and reluctant to do anything there.

“It’s something atavistic. We have had to stand against colonialism and imperialism for so long that no matter what you do you cannot criticise a black brother.”

It’s personal

She adds that Mbeki’s character has depreciated his popularity: “He has the misfortune of being an intellectual. Nobody likes a president who is an intellectual because it is difficult to relate to.”

Suzman is less sympathetic, saying that Mbeki should not have taken power so soon.

“[Former president] Nelson Mandela should have stayed another five years and let the country settle down instead of passing the rod to Mbeke, who in any case wasn’t a good choice.

“Mbeki did have some standing when he started out as the big negotiator for Africa, for democracy, but he hasn’t succeeded anywhere.

“SADC [the Southern African Development Community] is hopeless, the African Union is hopeless. The UN stopped the slaughter in Sudan, Ethiopia and other countries, so you can’t say that he has set a standard of democracy since he came to power here.

“Cyril Ramaphosa would have been much better – skilled, a trade unionist, he knew about business and was a down-to-earth and uncompromising guy.”


South Africa’s cabinet has fallen apart since the political coup that ended Mbeki’s reign – with 11 ministers resigning. But opposition to Zuma is yet to emerge.

Suzman, 91, says: “A lot of people will not vote in the next election, that’s my guess. Because there’s no alternative they see.

Zuma: ‘Hand me my AK-47 [Reuters]

“And there are still millions living in shacks – no electricity, communal toilets, no water. The civil service has deteriorated, the state schools are hopeless. The hospitals are a disgrace – and we used to have good hospitals. Unemployment is appalling.

“That’s not providing a better life for all as they thought would happen after apartheid. So people are disaffected.”

Suzman points out that the Democratic Alliance, the greatest opposition to the ANC, gained only 12 per cent of the vote in the last general election in 2004.

“It hasn’t provided a chap that the 40 million blacks will say ‘here is a man we can vote for.'”

She said that after 40 years of all-white government: “I do not see the great mass of black voters voting for an opposition headed by whites.”

Both women agree that the country needs to focus on education to alleviate the burden of missed opportunities suffered by generations of blacks during apartheid and which prevents progress today.

After the arduous route taken to end the racist minority apartheid government 14-years ago, Suzman and Gordimer believe that democracy in South Africa is, however, doing well.

Gordimer said: “We are not doing that badly. But we must do better. We must reduce poverty. You cannot get far with your democracy when you have enormous poverty on one side.

“But we have led such an unnatural life. We are now living a natural life,” with different races intermingling.

“So this indeed gives me confidence that, eventually, with tremendous difficulties along the way, we’ll succeed.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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