I always enjoy looking at a contrarian point of view that challenges the status quo of opinion in order to round out a debate on an issue, especially one that is largely emotive. Over the years, contrarians have often proved to be right in the face of a majority that builds a collective consensus through a group-think mentality. And so this brings me to Jacob Zuma.
About a year ago I wrote a post on my blog about Zuma, relating specifically to the “white fright” about Zuma becoming president of South Africa. I reread it again recently and it seemed to still have plenty of relevance as a debating point, and thus I’ve updated it and republished it on the Thought Leader forum.
Let’s start with three current elements of the anti-Zuma opinion within this issue. The first is the widely held belief among the white elite that if Zuma comes to power in South Africa, we will immediately begin a slide to a non-functioning and socialist state, beginning with the repealing of our macroeconomic policies and the dismantling of political centralisation.
The second is the view that we do not have a robust enough democracy in South Africa that is able to stop him from pursuing any agenda he so chooses. The third is that should he be given the presidency, South Africa will become the laughing stock of the world, with the result of lost credulity on the world stage and a loss of all we have fought so hard to build.
Let’s continue with the ground rules. Firstly, I harbour no favour for a Zuma presidency and believe that he holds little to a leader of the international quality of Mandela or Mbeki. Secondly, I make and see no excuse for his failings in terms of allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct or his bigoted comments regarding gay people. My point here is to provide a contrarian view to the three broader elements of the status quo mentioned above.
So the hypothesis, then, is that if Zuma comes to power, it will not push South Africa into a heavily socialist, backward country and ruin the economic freedom and development so hard fought in the past decade.
I base this initial segment of the hypothesis upon a few key facts from Zuma’s past. Firstly, one has to realise that Zuma is riding Cosatu’s coat-tails primarily to achieve his aim of reaching the presidency. This has been borne out in Cosatu’s recent decision to endorse Zuma as its preferred candidate.
Further, Zuma had been deputy president of South Africa for six years, and sat by and supported the ANC’s commitment to the current — and by emerging-market terms, substantially capitalist — macroeconomic policies. As an aside, it’s also important to note that, as Markinor surveys have shown, less than half of Cosatu’s base would support a Zuma presidency in their individual capacities, so it’s no foregone conclusion.
However, should he come to power, he will need much more than Cosatu’s backing alone. But I think that people misunderstand Zuma’s political savvy — he’s built a significant power base, as can well be seen, and he’s built it in direct opposition to the type of leader Mbeki is, because he cannot beat a leader like Mbeki on the same terms. He has to take another approach, to build a differentiation as it were, and this is by way of populist support, and thus, pandering to populist ideals.
I don’t think Zuma accidentally procured populist support; I think he’s courted and nurtured it as his vehicle to power. Think of how carefully he has taken risks to appeal to the poorer man in the street, without completely alienating himself from the corridors of power. Think of how he has taken great pains to appeal to the Afrikaans electorate through carefully stage-managed appearances with Steve Hofmeyr and public support during the De la Rey uproar.
Does that mean that if he comes to power, he has to adopt an entirely populist approach politically? Not necessarily. The current ANC voting bloc is impressively forgiving of its president — a hangover from the as-yet-intact “liberation party” principles of our nascent democracy. I believe that Zuma undoubtedly knows this, and may well understand that he can pay lip service to his populist base and make some fairly demonstrative moves, but will not need to (and — I will explain — will not be able to) push through a socialist populist agenda.
This final point finds relevance in the fact that in modern South Africa, many of our largest and most influential businessmen (vis-à-vis Messrs Sexwale, Ramaphosa et al) are former ANC struggle leaders who hold large sway in terms of influence of party faithful and the ANC’s upper echelons.
There is simply too much riding on the success of our economy to alter its course to a significantly more socialist one. Small changes can be made, such as the extension of the income grants, but the sway of these ex-leadership businessmen — and presidential challengers — will be fully brought to bear on the ANC upper echelons should this go any further.
Then there is the issue of South Africa’s democratic institutions, most notably the press. The South African press has a largely negative view of Zuma, and one cannot underestimate the power of the press to sway influence in the succession battle. This naturally makes the December 2007 ANC conference a critical time for the press’ influence, as once the ANC presidential candidate is chosen there, power is largely a given.
However, if Zuma does take power, the press will undoubtedly give him a very tough time on political issues and can be a significant power in shifting voting patterns in municipal elections and in shifting electorate views. The ANC is also well aware that it is in the early stages of a very difficult time for the party, with different factions both in the tripartite alliance and the party splitting its unity. The press can only further divide these factions, and should Zuma try to force through socialist reforms, I think that the press would raise the stakes and make it very difficult for him to do so without doing notable damage to the ANC’s future strength.
I think if Zuma comes to power, he may well tip the scales back a bit from our current position in terms of a truly capitalist macroeconomic policy, but we need to realise that will most likely not be anything that will harm the long-term success of the country. Countries such as France, Germany and Canada are successful with macroeconomic policies that are largely more socialist than ours, and nobody tolls the death bells for them.
There will undoubtedly be some capital flight as foreign investors perceive greater political risk and move money from emerging economies, but should the economy stabilise, this will undoubtedly return. Likewise for the rand, but again, our economy has shown to be very resilient to internal shocks in the past. Assuming for the sake of argument that Zuma is given the ANC presidency in December, should he communicate more effectively to business leaders subsequent to the AGM on what type of president he will be, he may go a long way to protecting against this capital flight in the interim.
Finally, there are the electorate themselves. The white elite generally view the black majority as a homogenous voting bloc, which is far from the truth. Surveys have shown that Zuma has divided the black electorate and while they will probably not shift votes from the ANC to other parties, they may abstain from voting and will probably be very vocal in their opposition to what they perceive will be Zuma policies if he is elected. This will also be a handicap for Zuma as, within the ANC philosophy, there is no single person bigger than the party, and there will undoubtedly be much pressure on him Zuma internally to respect the party’s historical strength as one that represents the largest proportion of the non-white majority.
On the third and final point, we are not alone in having leaders with questionable pasts, where examples abound. Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi had many allegations of graft against him before and during his presidency, alleged ties with the Mafia and many accusations of propaganda and abuse of power during the run-up to his election. Nobody stopped talking to Italy.
Look no further than George Bush for the best example. No matter what a disaster he is, there are few countries not willing to make a presidential visit to the US. The point is, a president of a country will be judged on what he does in office (vis-à-vis Berlusconi), and if the country is of strategic importance — as South Africa is economically and politically — then countries will still retain strong foreign relations (vis-à-vis Bush).
One needs to remember that this is what happens in a democracy — it’s the will of the people as a whole, not your vote individually. In the US, many on the far left emigrated from the country, such was their disgust that Bush won the 2004 election. That was not the right response there, and it’s not the right response here either. If you don’t like something in a democracy, you own it! It’s your democracy — get out there and change it. Campaign for the other guy, write letters to the press, donate to a competitor’s campaign, do something about it.
Sadly, I feel that too often the white elite fall into the “Chicken Little” mentality, where they are continually waiting for the sky to fall. The Zuma presidency is the latest such event that is “doomed make us like Zimbabwe”. But before we listen to the dinner-party talk and believe it, or buy into the group-think mentality, take a moment to challenge that view and check those assumptions.
A Zuma presidency will undoubtedly not be ideal for our country, but let’s wait and see how bad it is. It may not in practice prove to be nearly as dire as many believe, and I contest that our democracy, its institutions and our economy are much stronger than many believe. I can tell you one thing, South Africa will still be a great place to live …