South Africa: Zuma presidency: New era or business as usual?

May 2, 2009

The 2009 South African general election turned out to be a landmark event for the African National Congress (ANC). The party faced some of its stiffest competition and still came out tops, despite a dismal 15-year delivery record.

In an ironic twist, the people whom the ANC has failed most (the poor) turned out en masse to keep it in power. But those for whom it's been bending over backwards for (the elite) appear to have voted for the opposition.

The actions of both groups defy belief, but in a world where perception trumps reality, perhaps one shouldn't be surprised that it is the estimation of the ANC's perceived worth that seems to have motivated voters' behaviour.

Despite being sold down the river by the elite politics of their party, the poor still see the ANC as their saviour.

ANC leader Jacob Zuma, a populist figure backed by the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), ascends the presidency at an interesting time in world history.

Conservative governments have swung to hard line positions, as evidenced by the political landscape in Israel.

Centrist governments like US President Barack Obama's administration are dithering more than ever. As Normon Solomon put it in an April 22 article, either Obama can't do anything seriously wrong or he can't do anything seriously right.

At the other end of the spectrum, Latin American progressive governments are openly nailing their socialist colours to the mast.

What path will Zuma and his new ANC carve out for South Africa's future?

Under Zuma's stewardship, will the ANC finally right the wrongs of our apartheid past?

Early signs are worrying.

Zuma has not said anything that indicates a break from the past, which would put South Africa firmly on the road to dealing with structural poverty. For the time being it looks pretty much as though the poor are still going to get screwed.

South Africa's economy is still firmly rooted in the legacy of apartheid. Pressure to maintain the status quo is strong.

Since taking government in 1994, the economic policies of the ANC, rather than transforming the economic landscape, have divided our economy. We are led to believe that this dualism between the first and second economy is a necessary evil.

So while the ANC has always promised "a better life for all", high-level research reveals thatits obsession with neoliberal economics perpetuates the apartheid status quo in post-apartheid South Africa.

To coincide with our first post-apartheid decade in 2004, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released a report assessing South Africa's human development.

The report said: "The current strategy and policies for achieving growth are objectively anti-poor as, on the one hand, the gap between economic growth and employment growth is widening and, on the other, given their capabilities, the poor are not able to integrate into the current processes of economic expansion."

Income inequality is one of South Africa's biggest challenges and that this inequality in income distribution is the result of a growth path that ensures high earnings for the owners of capital and employees with skills.

The UNDP report concluded: "South Africa's sustainable development prospects depend on a successful re-orientation of the economic structure and policies — such that the economy becomes inclusive (broad-based), equitable and sustainable over time."

In the five years since this report was released, this has not happened. In the aftermath of this landslide ANC victory, it is still doubtful whether South Africa will finally be put on a trajectory to achieve this goal.

Zuma has gone on record assuring corporate South Africa that there will be no big changes to economic policy. The financial media have assured their readers Zuma will be "business friendly".

What impact will the global financial crisis have on the policies of the new ANC government? Are the poor in South Africa doomed to join the estimated 53 million people who will fall deeper into poverty in 2009 as a result of the global recession?

Rather than looking to the North for advice from experts who didn't foresee the financial crisis, one hopes Zuma will look for inspiration in other parts of the world.

If it's jobs and decent pay that his constituency is after, then it would certainly be worth Zuma's while to look at what's happening in Latin America — the only region in the world where inequality has declined.

Bucking global trends, nine countries in this region are experiencing declining poverty rates, notably from 2002-2007. So far, the trend is only marginally affected by the global economic meltdown.

How did they do it? They raised the wages of their poorest and reduced the earnings of their richest. We are informed by this excerpt from a December 2008 briefing paper released by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean: "Changes in the structure of income distribution between 2002 and 2007 reveal three clearly distinct situations.

"Nine countries (Argentina, Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama and Paraguay) have significantly narrowed the gap between the groups at the extreme ends of the spectrum, both by increasing the poorer groups' share of total income and by lowering that of the highest income households.

"The most notable reductions in the two aforementioned indicators (36% and 41%, respectively) were recorded in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Significant improvements were also observed in Bolivia, Brazil and Nicaragua, where both indicators fell by about 30%."

Just a few days ago, some of these Latin American leaders vetoed a declaration that came out of the Summit of the Americas, also attended by bankers'-best-buddy Obama.

Progressive Latin American leaders pointed out that the role played by capitalism in bringing about the global financial crisis was not addressed by the declaration.

These issues are important for Zuma to consider because political leaders who are genuinely interested in pro-poor development and social justice — with track records to boot — are challenging the abuses of big capital.

They are taking on the rich and powerful. Something that Zuma shows no sign of doing, regardless of the fact that he was carried to victory on the shoulders of the ANC's alliance partners — the SACP and COSATU — whose thinking one assumes would be more in line with the Latin American leaders.

Many are waiting with baited breath to see how long Zuma's honeymoon with the alliance partners will last.

His cabinet appointments will reveal his true intentions. Is he just a power hungry career politician willing to exploit any relationship to get to the top, or does his proximity to the alliance partners indicate a genuine willingness to break with the recent tradition of the ANC, which has been consistently to betray its strongest supporters?
South Africa's poor want jobs and houses. They deserve these and more.
[Fazila Farouk is the executive director of the South African Civil Society Information Service. This article is reprinted from]

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