Editorial: Zuma frustrates ANC's intentions
For years, the ANC has, at regular intervals, provided a frank evaluation of its track record in government and public service. It detests outsiders (such as this newspaper) exposing its weaknesses, preferring to do it internally – and often preferring to keep it internal. This past week, at the party’s national executive committee (NEC) lekgotla, an expanded mid-year meeting of senior party leaders and government officials, the ANC again gave an assessment of its performance in government.
In their reports, President Jacob Zuma and party secretary general Gwede Mantashe were candid about what is spooking the party as far as its government performance goes: incompetence, corruption and lack of urgency in executing strategies and policies.
With local government polls taking place in less than 12 months, they seem very worried.
In last year’s national poll, the party almost lost Gauteng, the country’s economic hub and, until now, a political powerhouse. The lekgotla was warned that the ANC’s electoral future is gloomy if it didn’t get a grip on governance. Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene painted a bleak economic picture of a sluggish economy, high unemployment and an unaffordable state salary bill. Other officials conceded that the state had limited capacity to take South Africa out of its current morass.
The party and government officials managed to diagnose the symptoms of the cancer infecting its 21-year rule. They detected the seismic vibrations and defects. But why is the party, especially under Zuma, failing to provide an effective remedy? Governing South Africa requires political shrewdness, business savvy and the creative juggling of extreme policy choices. Above all, it requires tenacious, firm, bold and visionary leadership. A corporate-type leader will appease the middle class and investors, but leftist groups and the representatives of the working class will rebel – ask Thabo Mbeki. He was lucky that the economy was relatively stable during much of his tenure, recording a budget surplus in 2007 and another, though very small, in 2008. He had good policy czars around him.
He was an intellectual contrarian who defied his leftist allies in favour of market policies, creating a cheeky black middle class amid continuing inequality and poverty. But he battled unsuccessfully to reduce the cost of doing business in South Africa. We are still feeling the brunt of his disastrous policy choices on energy. He didn’t finish his term, though his popularity rating was still impressive.
Nelson Mandela had exploited the euphoria over South Africa’s new democracy, and used his iconic stature to dump key parts of the left-driven economic policy of reconstruction and development in favour of Mbeki’s non-negotiable growth and redistribution agenda. Mandela certainly preferred a lean government, warning his leftist comrades that the state was “not an employment agency”. But the programmes of his years in power lifted the majority of South Africans out of absolute poverty, connecting them to the power grid and water pipes.
Zuma was not as lucky as Mbeki. The world economy imploded a year before he came to power, mocking his promise of a million new jobs, which would never come into existence. The new dawn, in the form of China, turned out to be a mirage: South Africa’s key trading partner is slowing down dangerously. When Zuma came to power, the economy was already in decline and shedding jobs; investors were heading elsewhere.
He inherited a country already battling an unacceptably high crime and unemployment rate, civil discontent, poor education and health policies, and dysfunctional state-owned enterprises. He has to deal with the catastrophic consequences of Mbeki’s failure to build power stations.
But, overall, it is Zuma’s own poor leadership that is aggravating an already deteriorating situation. His indecisiveness has led to policy disjuncture and uncertainty, the latter resulting in investors hoarding their much-needed cash. Under his government, public institutions have been undermined and weakened, affecting confidence in the country. There appears to be reluctance to deal decisively with corruption, a curse that – according to Mantashe this past week – is denting South Africa’s image.
Zuma has faced accusations of corruption. The criminal case against him was dropped in questionable circumstances in 2009, and questions about the inappropriate use of taxpayers’ money to upgrade his private residence remain unanswered.
Mantashe has called for strong action against corruption “within our ranks”, but the host of unanswered questions surrounding Zuma, and the ANC’s determined defence of him on every front, leave it unlikely to be able to act on that resolve. Criminals are terrorising the country but the police, prosecutors and intelligence service are too embroiled in factional battles to deal with crime – and Zuma is at the centre of most of these disputes.
His administration is weak, lacking talented leading policy gurus, effective aides and solid advisers. His preference for unctuous staffers, chosen for factional reasons rather than skill, has led to errors of judgment and lack of innovation. He has appeased neither the middle class nor the workers.
For the sake of South Africa, the ANC has to take responsibility for providing leadership, notwithstanding the weaknesses of its present leader. At its lekgotla, party leaders admitted that the patience of the people is wearing thin. Zuma will be gone in four years’ time, but the decline seen under his government could outlast his term. At what cost?