South Africa After the Age of Heroes

Jeffrey Herbst. Current History. Volume 107, Issue 708. April 2008.

South Africa’s democracy took a new turn in December 2007 when the ruling, dominant African National Congress (ANC), at its party congress in Polokwane, rejected President Thabo Mbeki’s attempt to serve another term as party leader. Instead the ANC elected as its leader former Vice President Jacob Zuma-making him also the presumptive next South African president, following 2009 elections that Mbeki cannot contest because of constitutional term limits. This was nothing less than a political rebirth for Zuma, who had been “redeployed” from the vice presidency (that is, fired) in June 2005 after a close business associate was convicted of fraud. Zuma had also been brought to trial in 2006 (though he was eventually acquitted) on rape charges, and he has been ridiculed for his view that a shower can help prevent the transmission of HIV. A few days after taking control of the ANC, he was indicted on fraud charges.

Zuma’s rallies, where his supporters sing his theme song, “Get Me My Machine Gun,” make him seem very distant from former South African President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, both Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Zuma’s well-known populism is also at odds with the neoliberal economic policies administered by Mandela and Mbeki. Indeed, one of Zuma’s first steps as ANC leader was to start using the socialist salutation “comrade” to refer to fellow party members.

The ANC’s repudiation of Mbeki’s effort to continue leading the party even after he leaves the presidency was extraordinarily public and transparent. Indeed, it was probably the first time in the history of Africa-a continent whose countries give remarkable deference to even the most dysfunctional leaders-that a sitting president was publicly defeated in an attempt to continue managing his party. As such, the Zuma transition represented an iconic democratic moment for South Africa, as well as a traumatic moment for the anc. Nonetheless, Zuma’s actions and views are problematic in many ways. They threaten, under the worst scenarios, to disrupt the hard-earned gains that the South African economy has achieved in recent years.

This complicated, contradictory array of events-an outburst of democracy leading to the nomination of an extremely problematic leadershows that in many ways South Africa has moved beyond the heroic era of Mandela to one in which leaders are democratically selected but all too human. What this means for South Africa’s future is, inevitably, complicated as well.

The ANC’s Loss of Discipline

The ANC was not always a very successful national liberation movement. Indeed, for many years it bragged that it was the world’s oldest national liberation movement, seemingly unaware that this was not necessarily a positive attribute. The ANC continually misunderstood the strategic situation in South Africa, was often penetrated by apartheid spies, and did not have particularly good links with opposition groups inside the country.

However, the ANC was good at maintaining internal discipline. Overwhelmingly, it prevented its adherents from engaging in the kind of undisciplined terror against the white population that would have been emotionally satisfying but counterproductive to the movement’s long-term interests. As stated in a critical strategy and tactics document adopted by the ANC in 1969:

The riot, the street fight, the outburst of unorganized violence, individual terrorism: These were symptoms of the militant spirit but not pointers to revolutionary technique. The winning of our freedom by armed struggle-the only method left open to us-demands more than passion. It demands an understanding and an implementation of revolutionary theory and techniques in the actual conditions facing us. It demands a sober assessment of the obstacles in our way and an appreciation that such a struggle is bitter and protracted. It demands, too, the dominance in our thinking of achievement over drama.

Very few revolutionary movements would have been able to control their followers the way the ANC did. The feat is especially impressive considering that much of the ANC’s leadership spent years in prison or in faraway London, and that so many opportunities for terror existed.

Similarly, although the ANC certainly contained cliques and factions, it generally managed to present a united front; leadership competitions of the type that routinely tear apart revolutionary groups did not unduly hamper it. When Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990 after more than a quarter-century of confinement, among the first things he said in public was: “I am a loyal and disciplined member of the African National Congress. I am therefore in full agreement with all of its objectives, strategies, and tactics.”

Over the next four years, the ANC would continue to exhibit an extraordinary degree of discipline. Mandela made numerous concessions to the white population that had never been conceived of during the struggle-concessions that included assuring members of the civil service and military that their jobs would be protected, extending promises to respect property rights, and abandoning the idea of trials for crimes against humanity. Despite all of this, the party and the majority of the black population followed Mandela and voted the ANC into office. And in 1999, when Mandela decided to relinquish the presidency, he was able to transfer power to his chosen successor Mbeki, then vice president, even though it was not at all clear that Mbeki was the most popular choice among the rank and file.

Zuma’s victory over Mbeki for the ANC leadership-putting aside how big a mistake Mbeki made by trying to retain control of the party-represents a new development for the ANC, given its ability in the past to manage leadership transitions. Indeed, Mbeki’s having “redeployed” Zuma makes the latter’s victory an especially acute public rebuke of the sitting South African president. And the results from the party congress at Polokwane were not only a defeat for Mbeki but also a stunning blow to his cabinet and the party’s leadership. Winnie Mandela, from whom the ANC had sought to distance itself for many years because of her criminal activities (including kidnapping and fraud), was actually the top vote-getter for the ANC’s National Executive Committee at the party conference.

It is hardly surprising to see a breakdown of revolutionary discipline in a party that has achieved power and no longer has a clear, hated opponent. But the ANC’s elite instability has occurred a little earlier than might have been predicted, given that South Africa’s new, nonracial order only came into existence in April 1994 and that, before then, the ANC was an unusually well-ordered revolutionary movement.

While Zuma may not be a particularly good choice to run the ANC, the party’s repudiation of Mbeki represents a remarkable development for South African democratic culture. A new ANC leader was chosen in a very public and transparent manner and without violence. Despite the traumatic breakdown of elite discipline, the party’s leaders, starting with Mbeki, handled Zuma’s accession to the leadership well-even with some grace. Indeed, the silver lining accompanying the anc’s premature display of elite instability is that the country’s democracy, just 14 years old, is itself demonstrating new maturity.

Why Zuma?

Even if Zuma’s resurgence was a signal moment for South Africa’s democracy, it still raises real questions about the country’s political order. To outsiders, Zuma’s appeal is hard to fathom. While he was acquitted of the rape charges, his defense was that his Zulu heritage demanded he have intercourse with the woman in question because she, wearing a skirt and displaying her legs, was obviously looking for sex and must not be disappointed. Further, Zuma seems a particularly poor choice to lead the country with the world’s largest number of aids sufferers, considering that he claims to have warded off infection with a shower after he was exposed to the HIV-positive rape accuser.

Zuma has four wives. He speaks excellent English but during his rape trial insisted on speaking only Zulu. Thus, he is not exactly a role model for South Africa, a country that has worked hard to empower women and to put aside ethnic conflict. Zuma’s chief financial adviser has been convicted of fraud; the new party leader himself has had substantial involvement in transactions that have attracted fraud charges; and he may soon stand trial again. Even if Zuma is not brought to trial, he will operate under a permanent cloud. And Zuma was not the best of a bad lot. He arguably was the reverse. The party can claim a number of exceptional figures—starting with Cyril Ramaphosa, the chief negotiator during the democratic transition—whom it could have chosen as leader instead.

Still, the internal logic of Zuma’s victory was powerful. First, as the saying goes, Zuma had a much better war than Mbeki. Mbeki certainly faced hardships during his long exile in the apartheid era, but these involved cold rooms in London and trying to mobilize the world against the apartheid system. Zuma, on the other hand, was imprisoned on Robben Island for a decade. He served after his imprisonment as the ANC’s intelligence chief in southern Africa, and was constantly at risk of being assassinated by the efficient, brutal forces of the white South African government. When Zuma’s supporters sing “Get Me My Machine Gun,” they are not only implicitly threatening whites; they are also comparing Zuma’s record as a fighter to Mbeki’s as a diplomat. How one fought during the struggle against apartheid still matters a great deal in South Africa. It helps explain, in particular, the suspicions harbored by many ANC stalwarts toward those who did not carry guns, or who after the transition moved too quickly into the camp of big business.

Zuma’s victory also reflects Mbeki’s ideological incoherence during his nearly 10 years as president. After decades of apartheid-which amounted to a kind of racial socialism in which the entire market was rigged against blacks-the post-apartheid governments of Mandela and Mbeki developed the most free-market policies in South Africa’s history. The elimination of formalized discrimination represented at least a start at leveling the economic field for all South Africans (though much more still has to be done). In addition, the country’s macroeconomic management has been outstanding, as judged by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Government spending has been conservative despite legitimate demands for greater social expenditures; an autonomous central bank has oriented monetary policy toward curbing inflation; and rules regarding both capital and trade have been liberalized considerably. Partially as a result, South Africa is now enjoying its strongest economic growth in decades-growth accompanied by a strong rand and, until recently, low inflation.

Mbeki, however, does not celebrate the market or South Africa’s successful globalization. In weekly, widely distributed e-mails that he wrote when he was the ANC leader-e-mails that provided extraordinary insight into his thinking-he never argued that South Africa has adopted and benefited from capitalism, but instead quoted Marx and discussed enslavement as an aspect of the international economy. A particularly telling example of this occurred after confidence in the government was shaken by the release of a draft report in 2004 contemplating significant ownership changes in the mining sector. When Tony Trahar, the chief executive officer of the giant natural resource conglomerate Anglo-American, said that political risk in South Africa, though it was starting to diminish, was not yet eliminated, Mbeki did not accept that the glass was half full. Rather, in a September 2004 message that he e-mailed across the world, he went fully on the attack:

The poor and the despised … have chosen reconciliation rather than revenge. Rather than reparations, they have asked for an opportunity to do a decent job for a decent wage. Do they deserve to be computed as a political risk, when everything they have done and said has made the unequivocal statement that they are ready to let the past bury the past? Is it moral and fair that these, who daily bear the scars of poverty, should suffer from the guilt of their masters, who are fixated by the nightmare of a risky future for our country, which derives not from what the poor have done and will do, but from what the rich fear those they impoverished will do, imagining what they themselves would have done, if they had been impoverished?

Mbeki did not seem to understand that the (declining) political risk identified by Trahar stemmed from the government itself, not the poor. Mbeki never explained to his constituents that South African prosperity would depend on growth generated by companies like the one Trahar led. ANC officials later had to work to mitigate the damage caused by the president’s decision to lambaste one of the most important businessmen in the country.

As a result of this extraordinary disjunction between words and deeds, Mbeki leaves no ideological legacy. As Margaret Thatcher might say, “There is no Mbekiism.” Those in South Africa who advocate for socialism-despite the gains that Mbeki’s neoliberal economic policies have created-do not have to justify breaking away from the Mbeki presidency because Mbeki himself used radical language even as his policies were going in a very different direction. Indeed, surprisingly little public sympathy exists within the ANC for continuing in the current direction-even as the country celebrates its economic growth-because the president himself has not publicly backed his own policies. Zuma differs from Mbeki in actually believing that South Africa should enact more radical policies, but his rhetoric is not very different from Mbeki’s.

The Zimbabwe Fantasy

Despite South Africa’s considerable achievements, an unmistakable angst exists regarding what the post-apartheid era has come to mean. The very normality of South Africa today compared to the era of heroic struggle is, of course, a disappointment to some (even if they do not miss for a moment the brutality of the old regime). More importantly, many black South Africans believed that by now their country would be-after almost 15 years of transformation-more transformed than it is. The black-white divide remains obvious to all, almost all of the time. The government has made impressive advances in delivering services to the people and, to a much lesser extent, creating jobs, but the life chances of blacks are still radically different from those of whites, and this fact understandably gnaws at many. Flying over Johannesburg, it is easy to guess who lives in the shacks below (though the owners of the homes with swimming pools have become more diverse).

Discontent in South Africa is affected by people’s notions about Zimbabwe, which has become a kind of secret fantasy for some in the anc. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has destroyed his country with land seizures and a lunatic economic policy that has provoked hyperinflation; those with skills or money or just a desire to survive have been forced to flee. Mugabe has justified the destruction of Zimbabwe by arguing that he is simply completing the revolution that he promised when the country gained independence in 1980, including the return of land that was stolen from Africans. He therefore stands in stark contrast to the ANC-which once promised seizure of whites’ property as well, but which has (wisely) decided to pursue a slow policy of redistribution by other means.

Probably no one in the ANC wishes to duplicate Mugabe’s policies in South Africa. However, a great many secretly approve of Mugabe’s overturning of white economic power in Zimbabwe. South Africa, as a result, has been profoundly ambivalent for years about how to approach its northern neighbor. Although the Congress of South African Trade Unions—a labor umbrella group that is formally allied with the ANC—has called for active opposition to Zimbabwe, the ANC itself has never resolved to fully oppose its neighbor’s self-destruction. This is because Mugabe has wrapped his actions in rhetoric that is easy for former apartheid sufferers to understand.

It remains to be seen whether Zuma will run in the 2009 elections, let alone become president. The government seems to be proceeding with corruption charges against him. Zuma may be forced to resign the ANC presidency, or he might become so problematic that the party will eventually decide to jettison him for another candidate for South Africa’s presidency. But it is hard to guess what path Zuma might take in the future: Those who observed his trial for rape would hardly have believed he would become president of the ANC two years later. The record suggests it is dangerous to bet against him.

Economic Discipune At Risk?

Zuma’s populism, Mbeki’s ideological incoherence, the public’s disappointment with the government’s ability to deliver, and Mugabe’s example across the border-all of these factors reasonably put into question whether South Africa’s neoliberal economic policies have, in fact, been locked in. Certainly, while South Africa has enjoyed strong economic growth in recent years, it needs to do more if it is to reduce poverty and become a leader in the developing world (its stated ambition). The South African government, when it reviewed in 2003 the first decade of freedom, correctly called the country’s economic growth “mediocre” compared to nations like Malaysia, Thailand, and South Korea, with which it hopes to be compared. The government had to admit that the overall economy displayed a “steady but unspectacular performance compared with most developing countries.”

But Mbeki’s government is not primarily responsible for the South African economy’s disappointing performance. The inheritance from apartheid-including the illiteracy and poor training levels of millions of blacks, and an economy devoted to serving a small racial minority-largely explains the poor growth performance. In fact, the government’s macroeconomic management has been far superior to that of its white predecessors. Still, the ANC is the government of the day, and it is the ANC that must deal with the consequences of poor growth.

In the short run, it is unlikely, even if Zuma becomes president, that South Africa will go down a substantially different economic path. For one thing, the government has had such tremendous success collecting income tax (another area in which it has significantly outperformed the governments of the apartheid era) that a substantial public surplus now exists, one that can legitimately be spent on addressing social needs without threatening hardwon economic stability. Such additional spending could, over the next few years, reduce calls for more radical redistribution schemes. In addition, the investments that the government has already made in social services will continue to pay off; more poor South Africans as a result will find their life chances improving in the next few years. Also, a significant portion of the ANC itself benefits from the country’s current economic arrangements, and would be loath to endorse major changes.

If Zuma does come to power, however, South Africa will need to make the case all over again that its economic policies reward investors, both domestic and foreign. After almost 15 years of excellent macroeconomic management, during which many were calling for radical measures, South Africa might rightly feel that it deserves the benefit of the doubt regarding future economic policies. But Zuma’s coming to power would essentially wipe away the goodwill that South Africa has, at some cost, bought. That goodwill could be garnered again, but there would be a lag. And leaders other than Zuma could certainly accomplish more, faster.

At the same time, the fact that South Africa will probably stay on its current economic path is not all good news: Keeping to the current course probably means a failure to adopt even more ambitious growth targets that would reduce poverty faster and attract more foreign investment. To aim for higher growth, the country would need to embark on further, dramatic changes in the economy, including significant deregulation. Little evidence suggests that a future South African government could pursue such a politically unpopular track, and a government headed by Zuma would be especially unambitious about economic growth. Indeed, one element of the confused ideological legacy that Mbeki leaves is that the ANC itself is not demanding higher growth rates, even though such a development path is necessary for faster reductions in poverty.

Worrying signs also remain regarding corruption (another concern that Zuma would have trouble addressing, given the accusations against him). It should be noted from the start that the ANC is in significant ways less corrupt than previous white governments, which used the numerous distortions in the economy, as well as a sanctions-busting mentality that coursed through much of the private sector, to engage in continual enrichment. The current corruption problem is also not especially significant by global standards. In Transparency International’s most recent corruption perception index, South Africa ranks 43rd, tied with high performers like Malaysia and South Korea. Again, however, the ANC is the government of the day, and it needs to limit corruption if it is to deliver on its ambitious social goals and promote economic growth.

Corruption concerns will persist, especially as the government pursues economic policies that enable well-connected black businessmen to gain significant stakes in industry as part of an economic empowerment program. With Zuma as ANC leader, and possibly destined to play an important role in government, South Africa-whether fairly or not-will have to continue proving its case that corruption is not a problem threatening basic economic performance.

The Disease with No Cure

It is impossible to write about South Africa without discussing HIV/AIDS. South Africa is estimated to have the world’s largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS (5.3 million) and the largest number of Aios-related deaths per year (370,000). Mbeki’s extremely problematic approach to HIV/AIDS is well-known: He drew international attention with his attempt to discredit HIV/AIDS science, and he has supported the country’s health minister, who insists that a homemade regimen of olive oil, lemon, beetroot, and garlic is a legitimate alternative to antiretrovirals. While parts of the South African government have implemented important policies for prevention and treatment of the disease, the overall impression is that the government has been at war with itself on HIV/AIDS. This has undoubtedly hindered efforts to address the epidemic.

The Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS estimates that government policies in recent years have not managed to lower the number of infections, and that only 15 percent of infected pregnant women receive treatment that could prevent transmission of the HIV virus to their babies. Only about 21 percent of HIV-positive people receive medical treatment, an extremely surprising number given the sophistication of South Africa’s health system. No one understands for sure how the deaths to come will ultimately affect South Africa’s society and economy, but in HIV/AIDS the country faces a challenge that greatly complicates its already difficult transition from apartheid.

Zuma is not the man to lead South Africa’s approach to the disease that threatens to cripple the country’s future. His attitude toward casual sex and his “shower” remark only complicate the tasks of the committed professionals, both within and outside of government, who are trying to address the disease. Indeed, no matter what Zuma says or does in the future regarding aids, he has already signaled to the country that he does not believe in the one approach to HIV/AIDS that has proved most effective in the rest of the world: prevention.

The path from Mandela-without doubt the greatest statesman of his generation-to Zuma could be viewed as farce. But the simple reality is that the time of heroes has passed in South Africa, and sometimes countries choose problematic leaders. In all probability South Africa will survive if Zuma comes to power, but it will not reach its potential. In the area of aids, Zuma may be very bad indeed (though it would be hard to do worse than Mbeki). As a result, many South Africans may remain in poverty unnecessarily, and an extraordinary number will die from the epidemic. Unfortunately, it is all too normal for countries to do well, but not as well as they should, and to falter when faced with this disease that has no cure.