Zuma will win, and then you should start to worry
By Eurasia Group analyst Mike Davies South Africans, including some who were not yet born when Nelson Mandela emerged from prison in February 1990, will vote Wednesday in post-apartheid South Africa’s fourth democratic election. But the optimism that characterized the early days of a free South Africa has given way to fears of an uncertain ...
By Eurasia Group analyst Mike Davies
By Eurasia Group analyst Mike Davies
South Africans, including some who were not yet born when Nelson Mandela emerged from prison in February 1990, will vote Wednesday in post-apartheid South Africa’s fourth democratic election. But the optimism that characterized the early days of a free South Africa has given way to fears of an uncertain future.
This election is less a watershed moment in the country’s history than the endgame of a long-running political battle between former president Thabo Mbeki and his deputy Jacob Zuma, the political rival Mbeki fired in 2005 following allegations of corruption. Zuma has won that battle — though the fallout will continue after the election. Mbeki was driven from office in September 2008. Zuma, whose corruption charges were dropped just two weeks ahead of the polls, will almost certainly be elected president at the first sitting of parliament in early May.
Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC) will win the election, though its two-thirds majority is under threat. His bitter fight with Mbeki has divided their party, giving rise to a splinter group known as the Congress of the People (COPE). Along the way, the reputations of various state institutions have been dragged through the mud, and broader questions have been raised about the country’s long-term political stability.
What does Zuma’s election mean for South Africa? He is a divisive figure. His ardent supporters attend election rallies in the thousands clad in t-shirts adorned with his beaming face, but a variety of groups have deep anxieties regarding who Zuma is and what he stands for. There is his background, with little formal education, as well as his legal problems: In addition to corruption charges, he was acquitted of rape in 2006. And then, of course, there are his controversial views on issues ranging from homosexuality and polygamy (he has four wives) to pregnant teenagers and the transmission of HIV. Both domestic and foreign investors continue to fear that Zuma is beholden to leftist friends and allies within the ANC and its coalition partners: the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party.
Over the past 18 months, the charismatic Zuma has worked hard to win over skeptics. He has promised international investors in South Africa, the United States, Britain, and Europe that he and his party will continue the market-friendly policies of the past several years. There are reasons for optimism on this score: The balance of power within the party favors the current policy trajectory, limiting the likelihood of radical shifts in macroeconomic policy.
Yet, a potential Zuma presidency continues to cast a shadow, in part because suspicions of political interference in his corruption case and worries that the whole ordeal has eroded South Africa’s rule of law have only intensified. Worryingly, Zuma doesn’t appear to have a political vision for the country. When questioned on policy, he often simply points to his party’s platform, arguing that it is not for the individual to dictate policy. Consensus-building is often a noble thing, but Zuma will soon have to satisfy the often competing demands of business, labor, and government. It remains to be seen whether he will prove decisive, for example, in resolving cabinet disputes or providing the leadership needed to address some of his country’s most serious and chronic problems — from unemployment and poverty to crime and corruption.
As the global economic crisis begins to bite in South Africa, leadership will be crucial if the country’s resilience is to pass this difficult test. Beyond his core supporters, Zuma has yet to inspire that sort of confidence.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer
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