Half Sinking, Half Sailing: The Zuma Presidency in South Africa

James Hamill. Africa Review. Volume 3, Issue 2. July-December 2011.

Jacob Zuma’s presidency of South Africa was launched in the most inauspicious circumstances in May 2009. Zuma had stood at the epicentre of the turbulence which had destabilised the ruling African National Congress (ANC) between 2005 and 2008 as Africa’s oldest political movement found itself badly fractured, ultimately polarising into two mutually antagonistic camps. One faction was supportive of President Thabo Mbeki—President of the country since June 1999 and ANC president since December 1997—and the other of Jacob Zuma, Mbeki’s deputy in each position between 1999 and 2005. Mbeki had dismissed Zuma from the office of Deputy President in June 2005 following the conviction and imprisonment of his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, for fraud and corruption earlier in the same month. Ultimately, and despite Mbeki’s reputation as the consummate Machiavellian political operator, that conflict was resolved in Zuma’s favour when first, he wrested the ANC presidency from Mbeki in December 2007 at Polokwane and second, when Mbeki was removed prematurely from the Presidency in September 2008. Mbeki’s ouster produced a short interregnum with Kgalema Motlanthe serving as an interim President tasked with stabilising the country (and party) ahead of the April 2009 general election. The ANC’s decisive victory in that poll under Zuma’s leadership led to his elevation to the highest office in the land on 9 May 2009 at the age of 67, a remarkable testament to the political durability of a man whose career had appeared to face extinction in 2005 and 2006.

This article considers the effectiveness of the Zuma presidency by viewing it through the prism of two specific challenges: first, the broad national challenge of building democracy in a one-party dominant system, whilst providing good government and effective service delivery; and second, the narrower, but formidable, challenge of maintaining the unity of such a diverse and fractious ruling party, and the extent to which the apparent prioritisation of the latter objective is threatening the achievement of the former.

Zuma and the 2009 Election

Concerns about Zuma’s suitability for national leadership were widely expressed within the South African commentariat between 2005 and 2009 and they formed the staple ingredients of op-ed pieces in newspapers such as the Cape Times, Mail & Guardian, Business Day, and the Sunday Times. These stressed the unsatisfactory manner in which he had avoided prosecution on fraud and corruption charges, his tolerance of a violent political discourse from his supporters, his reactionary approach to issues of gender and patriarchy, and his flirtation with the politics of ethnic chauvinism. That said, these publications generally maintained a neutral position on the ANC’s internal strife and each was equally capable of running the most withering critiques of the Mbeki presidency. However, damning though many of these commentaries were, it is important to be aware of the limited reach of such publications and to appreciate that they still play to a largely English-speaking, generally liberal, and disproportionately white audience. With the possible exception of the Sunday Times, the voice of each had limited resonance in the black community where support for Zuma remained solid and impervious to this negative coverage. For millions of black South Africans Zuma’s leadership offered hope: he brought a stirring message of change, itself ironic in view of his long political association with Mbeki, and recognition that Mbeki’s stewardship had enriched a privileged black minority at the expense of the overwhelming majority. He was greeted by ordinary black South Africans as a champion of the underdog and a leader able to empathise with the struggles of the most marginalised communities due to his own impoverished upbringing (Mangcu, 2009, 95). He had the ability to inspire audiences through speech, song and dance, particularly through his signature tune Awuleth’ Umshini Wami (‘Bring Me My Machine Gun’), a song evoking ‘struggle politics’ and his own role in Umkhonto we Sizwe—MK (Gunner, 2009).

This theatrical style of politics offered a sharp contrast to Mbeki’s austere and technocratic approach to government in which people became, in Partha Chatterjee’s phrase, ‘the empirical objects of government policy, not citizens who participate in the sovereignty of the state’ (Mangcu, 2009, 4). Under Mbeki the perception became entrenched that politics was the preserve of a snobbish, cerebral elite uncomfortable with, even contemptuous of, ordinary people (see Mangcu, 2009, 19-22). Zuma’s populist approach tapped into a strong current of anti-intellectualism in which his lack of a formal and relatively privileged educational background, characterising all previous generations of ANC leaders since 1912, was now celebrated as a positive asset in the attempt to reconnect the movement with ordinary people. Zuma’s ascendancy was also presented as the product of a revival of the party’s internal democratic mechanisms, a reclaiming of the ANC for the masses, and the emergence of a leadership with the ability to listen. That new style of politics re-energised the ANC itself, as well as people in the townships and rural areas, eclipsing any concerns they may have harboured about Zuma’s personal misdemeanours, his attachment to the Constitution (and liberal democratic modernity), or his complex legal situation. In fact, the goodwill felt towards him meant that millions of South Africans embraced the Zuma narrative on these issues namely, that he was being unfairly victimised and was the target of a vendetta by malign forces linked to the outgoing Mbeki regime.

Consequently, with Zuma at the helm, the ANC secured an emphatic victory in the April 2009 election only narrowly missing a two-thirds majority. Securing 65.9 percent of the vote after four years of the most rancorous internal politics, in which its divisions were laid bare before the electorate, was an impressive achievement by the ANC and is testament to both the party’s residual strength and Zuma’s prowess as a campaigner (Hamill, 2010, 9-10). It also served as a reminder to opponents that while the ANC may not rule ‘until Jesus comes again’, to borrow Zuma’s infamously extravagant formulation, an end to its dominance should not be anticipated in the foreseeable future.

President Zuma: Plus ca Change …

That Jacob Zuma would be a ‘charismatic mobiliser’ (Reddy, 2010, 200) on the campaign trail was never in doubt, but on entering the Presidency in May 2009 he cut a deeply divisive figure. The Zuma phenomenon had generated adulation and loathing in equal measure, and Zuma now faced the responsibilities of government with a widespread scepticism about his ability to cope. That said, one obvious advantage of the new situation was that it had at least ended the era of the two centres of power in which the party and state leaderships were divided and it was entirely unclear where ultimate authority resided. With Zuma installed as ANC and state President from May 2009, a sense of order and a clear chain of command had now been restored. However, any prospect of a prolonged honeymoon period was brought to an end in July 2009 by a series of strikes and by nationwide protests at the state’s inability to deliver adequate services and material improvements to much of the population 15 years into the democratic era. These protests provided a warning that, while its leadership of the liberation struggle has generated a deep loyalty to the ANC, it does not provide a bottomless reservoir of goodwill for the party to draw upon indefinitely and in all circumstances.

Inevitably, the interim verdicts on Zuma’s Presidency are mixed. He has recorded a number of successes as head of government and there has been a visible and welcome departure from the flawed personal style and political modus operandi of his predecessor. However, serious doubts about his leadership and capacity to provide effective government persist: his vision for South Africa is opaque, a bluff geniality has obscured his inability to articulate a core set of beliefs to a wider audience, and he appears to have a tenuous grasp of policy detail. Government is confronting Zuma with a series of formidable challenges which are testing his leadership capabilities to the full, but two in particular merit attention in this article.

The National Challenge

Although Zuma has hardly allayed all fears since May 2009, it is evident that the more apocalyptic scenarios mapped out by his critics during the election campaign—for example, Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille’s description of him as a ‘one man constitution wrecking machine’ (Mail & Guardian Online, 2009)—have not materialised. In fact, Zuma’s first two years in office have confirmed that prevarication and inertia pose significantly greater dangers to South Africa’s wellbeing than a dynamic and interventionist Presidency.

There have, however, been two significant exceptions to this general sense of political drift, one domestic and one global. The principal domestic achievement has been Zuma’s reversal of a decade of official obstructiveness in addressing the HIV/ AIDS pandemic. His December 2009 announcement of a more pro-active government approach—one anchored in an explicit acceptance of orthodox medical science—committed the government to a much wider provision of anti-retroviral drugs coupled with a greater emphasis on encouraging people to have their HIV status tested (Dugger, 2010). In late January 2010, however, he demonstrated his self-destructive tendencies with the revelations of a further extra-marital liaison which had resulted in him fathering another child, once again sending a dangerous message of sexual irresponsibility to the nation. Zuma’s principal achievement in the foreign policy arena has been to secure South Africa’s formal admission, in 2011, to the high profile club of emerging powers, the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) association, now to be BRICS, an admission which recognises the country’s status not only as Africa’s leading economy but as one of the major powers of the global South (Mail & Guardian Online, 2010). Zuma’s challenge now is to move this beyond the realm of ‘image’ and ‘profile’ and translate BRICS membership into the solid and measurable outcomes of accelerated growth and job creation. Reaching and sustaining growth at 7 percent per annum is now considered essential if the unemployment rate—24 percent officially, anywhere between 33 and 50 percent unofficially—is to be addressed (Polity.org.za, 2011).

Opposition parties made cautiously supportive noises during Zuma’s first year and were appreciative of the marked change in presidential style. They recognised the greater accessibility of the new President compared to Mbeki and his willingness to allow differences to be openly expressed in bilateral meetings (Musgrave-1, 2009). This was contrasted with Mbeki’s tendency to view all opposition and media criticism as inherently outrageous, although the 2010 Protection of Information Bill and the ANC’s proposed media tribunal highlighted a growing hostility towards the media due to its scrutiny of the murkier aspects of the ruling party’s conduct, particularly the endemic corruption in the public service. Zuma has also demonstrated a refreshing candour about the scale of the country’s problems, not only on HIV/AIDS but also on service delivery and crime, issues where Mbeki opted either for denialism or which he chose to view exclusively through the lens of race and racism (Perry, 2009, 33).

He has also made a reassuring start in terms of the Constitution and the rule of law, at least when set against the behaviour of his supporters when his prosecution remained a possibility and Helen Zille’s fears about his capacity for overt constitutional vandalism. The threatening rhetoric aimed at the judiciary, which accompanied his rise to the Presidency, has been jettisoned and replaced by a more statesmanlike demeanour. That said, the appointments by Zuma of a close ally, Menzi Simelane, to head the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and Mokotedi Mpshe, the former Acting Director of the NPA, who finally removed the threat of prosecution from Zuma in April 2009, to a judgeship in the North-West Province indicated that the politicisation of the criminal justice system, which the Zuma camp had complained about so bitterly under Mbeki, was continuing under the new regime’s patronage system. The government’s 2009 decision to disband the special anti-corruption investigation unit or ‘Scorpions’, which had gathered substantial evidence against Zuma, was a further pointer in this direction. This suggested that it was the outcome of Mbeki’s politicisation process to which the Zuma ‘camp’ had objected—the fact that they were its victims—rather than a rejection of politicisation per se. It also suggested that constitutionalism and democratic values were not deeply embedded in Zuma’s political practice, but tended to be viewed more opportunistically as instruments to be utilised as and when circumstances required. This also confirmed that there are at least as many continuities between the Mbeki and Zuma eras as there are ruptures, and the contention that Zuma represents a definitive break with ANC history and traditions is overly dramatic and unpersuasive. That point was also reinforced by Zuma’s attachment to top-down technocratic solutions such as the new National Planning Commission (NPC) and the Monitoring and Evaluation Unit, both located within the Presidency. Each of these initiatives bears the techno-rationalist imprimatur of Mbeki in that they are rooted in what Xolela Mangcu views as the modernist conceit that governments ‘can re-order society with a certain mechanical precision backed by scientific and technical expertise’ (Mangcu, 2009, 137). That sense of continuity is unsurprising in view of the fact that Zuma served as Mbeki’s Deputy-President for six years. This was a period in which he failed to distance himself from Mbeki on any of the major policy issues of the era, such as the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macroeconomic strategy—the ‘1996 class project’ to its left-wing critics—the ‘quiet diplomacy’ approach towards the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, or on HIV/AIDS. Nor did Zuma express any unease with the style and structure of Mbeki’s presidency, notably the extreme centralisation of authority and the hierarchies of power which he entrenched within both party and state (Suttner, 2010, 26). That previous unity of purpose has been obscured by the post-2005 differences between the two men which, despite the sound and fury accompanying them, have been largely devoid of ideological substance.

The prospect of major constitutional revision under Zuma looks remote given that the Constitution was largely designed by the ANC itself between 1991 and 1996 rather than an alien set of rules foisted upon it by other actors. However, attempts may be made to incrementally increase the power of central government vis-à-vis the provinces and municipalities as a response to the chronic under-performance and lethargic socio-economic delivery at those levels since 1994, a move that is likely to generate increased inter and intra-party tensions. The DA will certainly resist any attempt by the ANC national government to encroach upon the powers and prerogatives of the provinces. This threatens the DA’s most vital interests, given the importance the party attaches to its Western Cape provincial base and its difficulties (largely attributable to its narrow demographic support base) in reproducing its provincial election winning strategy at the national level. Moreover, within the ANC itself patronage networks—and the corruption and abuse of tendering processes they have helped facilitate—are firmly entrenched at the provincial and municipal levels (Mbeki, 2011). If greater central regulation threatens the material interests of these elites then it will be resisted, although such resistance seems certain to be couched in the more politically defensible language of decentralisation and local autonomy, coupled with a reminder to Zuma that it was Mbeki’s centralising instincts which helped produce the Polokwane outcome.

Perhaps the most serious threat to constitutionalism comes not from any frontal ANC assault, but rather from the pressure applied by the sheer political weight of such an overwhelmingly dominant party and by the dogmas of the ANC’s ‘National Democratic Revolution’. This seeks, as a core objective, the colonisation of the South African state with a view to making the state apparatus a reliable instrument of ANC rule and a means of extending party hegemony, a policy which emulates the National Party’s own modus operandi after 1948 (see De Jager, 2009, 281-284). The policy of ‘cadre deployment’—in which party loyalists are strategically positioned throughout the civil and public service—allows the ANC to exercise substantial influence over the work of supposedly impartial state bodies such as the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), the Reserve Bank, and the various ‘Chapter Nine’ institutions—for example, the Human Rights Commission, the Gender Commission, and the Office of the Public Protector—which are charged with the responsibility of monitoring compliance with the Constitution. This blurring of the demarcation lines separating party and state—an established feature of one-party dominant systems—continues to gather momentum in South Africa and is fundamentally incompatible with the liberal democratic values embodied in the Constitution itself.

Allied to this is the growing danger posed by a culture of ANC exceptionalism. The party views its leadership of the liberation struggle as having conferred a privileged status upon it, and that exaggerated sense of its own importance, reinforced by the scale of its four election victories, means it is incapable of viewing itself as an ordinary party within a competitive, pluralist setting. Instead, the ANC considers itself a unique political force, one ‘existing outside the purview of society’ (Mangcu, 2009, 44) with a mission to oversee and implement an historic, emancipatory project and the transformation it entails. It is, in effect, the representative of the nation, a self-image which undermines, even delegitimises, other political formations and which, in extremis, may create the appropriate political conditions for a growing intolerance of those same formations. It also provides for what Louise Vincent has described, in a different context, as the ‘simplification and dichotomisation of the political space’ (Vincent, 2009, 214) in which the ANC represents ‘transformation’, whilst its opponents are stigmatised as the forces of ‘counter-revolution’ who oppose change and harbour a desire to return to the past (De Jager, 2009, 280). Such charges are routinely directed at the DA but, as Luke Sinwell notes, a wide range of grass-roots social movements, who seek to champion alternative approaches to development—approaches stressing direct participation and an opposition to ‘top-down’ politics—have also become targets for the ruling party’s invective (Sinwell, 2010, 68-69). At the very least, this places the ANC in a tense relationship with both orthodox, liberal democratic constitutionalism and a more direct, participatory model of politics and, at worst, it raises the spectre of a creeping ‘Zanufication’. Liberation movements in government present a dangerous paradox in that the southern African experience demonstrates they are capable of exploiting the term ‘liberation’ for their own ends whilst draining it of meaning, and are incapable of delivering viable, post-liberation democratic states. The danger of this in the South African context has been highlighted not only by the opposition DA but also from within the ANC alliance itself, particularly by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) with its dire warnings of the growth of a ‘full blown predator state in which a powerful, corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas increasingly controls the state as a vehicle for accumulation’ (The Economist, 2010, 61). Zimbabwe’s post-2000 disintegration was also accompanied—indeed, was facilitated—by a barrage of exceptionalist and liberationist rhetoric from the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) movement.

This serves as a timely reminder that whilst much attention has been given post- 1994 to the possibility of South Africa acting as an evangelist for democratic governance in Africa—the continent emulating South Africa, in effect—we should also remain sensitive to the possibility of South Africa following the familiar postcolonial African trajectory in which big men, a dominant party, patronage networks, and neo-patrimonialism are juxtaposed with formal democratic processes, thus producing an increasingly schizophrenic political system. A genuinely different and distinctive Zuma Presidency would be one which first recognises this as a problem, before accepting that limitations on ANC power are necessary for the health of democratic government. Certainly one must allow for the possibility that the Presidency can change Zuma, bringing him to a more mature, less partisan outlook. So far on this issue, Zuma has adopted the Janus-like posture which now defines his politics. For example, he told Time magazine in December 2009: ‘We are too strong. Such support and power can intoxicate the party and lead you into believing that you know it all. You take things for granted. The party ends up unwieldy and in a mess’ (Perry, 2009, 34). However, the purpose of this remark was to prompt the ANC to refocus on its own priorities, rather than to invite restrictions on its power or to recognise the benefits of greater inter-party competition. In other words, its focus was on the internal—on challenging ANC arrogance and complacency—rather than the external, and an appreciation of the impact of one-party dominance on the broader democratic culture.

Judging from his political career thus far, his acceptance of the need for a curtailing of ANC power seems an unlikely outcome. Zuma is, in Alec Russell’s phrase, ‘the ultimate party man … ever sensitive to party protocol’ (Russell, 2009, 255) and one who fully embraces the narrative of ANC exceptionalism as his ‘until Jesus comes again’ comment demonstrates. Moreover, he also works within the tight constraints imposed by that ANC dominance. Through its dismissal of Mbeki, the ANC has demonstrated that even the highest officer in the land—the President of the country—is considered to be no more than a party functionary serving in government solely at the party’s discretion and charged with the responsibility of executing its will. The party is the ‘strategic political centre’, guiding the work of its activists deployed in government from those on the lowest rung to the most exalted. Thus, any attempt by Zuma to defy the will of the ANC and to stake out more national perspectives would invite his ‘recall’, particularly in a context where the ANC views the party and the national interest as essentially synonymous.

The Party Challenge

In terms of party management, Zuma has moderated the top-down ethos of the Mbeki era. Under Mbeki, policy was invariably decided by the President and his close inner circle and these fiats were then communicated down the ANC ranks with only a token attempt at consultation, an approach which eventually triggered the Polokwane backlash. By contrast, Zuma seems more attuned to the party’s sensitivities, more conscious of its prerogatives, and more accommodating of its diverse strands of opinion. This was reflected in the composition of his first Cabinet, with Zuma receiving generous praise for his finesse in building an inclusive government drawing upon talented figures from across the ANC (Mangcu, 2009, 142-143). He also appointed a team of independent minded ministers as opposed to the more servile Cabinet of his predecessor in which unconditional loyalty to Mbeki became the principal qualification for preferment. The erosion under Zuma of ‘absolute party discipline’ and Leninist ‘democratic centralism’, which were lamented as such negative features of the Mbeki era (Lotshwao, 2009, 905), is a double-edged sword however. Letting ‘a hundred flowers bloom’ may be a worthy ideal, but it is also deeply problematic for effective administration. There is a danger of chaos or that such a careful balancing of factional interests becomes an end in itself, a device to manage a fractious ruling party rather than a means to improve government performance and enhance delivery.

The Polokwane coalition which brought Zuma to power is inherently unstable, effectively constituting a broad church within another broad church. It embraces the traditional left in the form of the South African Communist Party (SACP), organised labour through Cosatu, poorer communities, rural traditionalists, social conservatives, ethnic nationalists, elements of black business, and MK veterans. It would also include formal ANC constituencies such as the Youth League and the Women’s League whose interests do not always overlap with those mentioned. With this bewildering range of ANC interests now contesting the ‘policy vacuum that surrounds the new president’ (Calland, 2009), Zuma’s attempt to satisfy each risks entrenching a lowest common denominator politics in which ambiguity is prioritised over clarity, and definitive policy choices become impossible lest they expose the brittleness of ANC unity. Government pronouncements are, therefore, at risk of becoming increasingly empty with Zuma reduced to articulating a broad wish list of aspirations in which everyone can share—poverty reduction, job creation, and socio-economic delivery—but with no agreement on a coherent plan to translate such noble aims into action.

The battle lines within the ANC have been redrawn since May 2009 as the Zuma coalition begins to fragment and its different factions learn that the Zuma Presidency is not what they hoped (or even believed) it would be (Letsoalo, 2009). Although those divisions are more complex than a straight left-right dichotomy, the most visible symbol of its disintegration would nonetheless be the outbreak of hostilities in 2010 between the SACP and Cosatu on the one hand, and the ANC Youth League on the other, each a strong backer of Zuma at Polokwane. The fierce factional tensions at national level are also being reproduced at provincial level with some provincial ANC structures in growing disarray as a consequence (Reddy, 2010, 196). The Zuma coalition had never been sustained by an agreed agenda for government but rather by an expectation of rewards (whether ideological, personal, or both) and by a shared disdain for Mbeki. The latter’s removal in September 2008, far from ending the ANC’s internecine feuding has merely caused it to take new forms, with fissures opening up in two areas in particular. The first is in the policy realm as Cosatu and the SACP have become disillusioned by Zuma’s failure to steer macro-economic policy in the more left-oriented direction promised by Polokwane (Brown-1, 2010) and by, what Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has called, the ‘dysfunctional’ nature of the tripartite alliance (Rossouw et al, 2010). Such complaints were routine under Mbeki, but Zuma supposedly represented a new beginning, a leftward turn and a reinvigoration of the alliance placing it at the centre of decision-making, perhaps with an alliance directorate steering the work of government. The left has been disabused of such notions since May 2009 with Zuma insisting—like Mbeki before him—that the ANC was elected to power and it alone constitutes the government with its allies reduced to a more junior supporting role (The Economist, 2009, 52). The second area is the competition for positions and the access to state resources which those positions provide as the ANC evolves into a party in which the old ethos of struggle, and the comradeship engendered by it, is replaced by a ‘new agenda of self-enrichment and crass materialism’, to quote Vavi (The Economist, 2010, 61). Zuma’s personal history and his cultivation of a countercronyist, rather than a genuinely anti-cronyist, politics have fatally compromised any public anti-corruption crusade he may have aspired to lead (Mbeki, 2011). Ironically, this post-liberation plundering occurs while the party continues to draw upon liberation narratives as an essential means of consolidating its hegemony.

In what has become an increasingly venal organisation, the struggle for power and wealth is eclipsing even the ideological differences sketched out above, although ideological language—as well as ‘a language of violence and threats’ (Reddy, 2010, 197)—may still be deployed to give those struggles a legitimising veneer. However, given that in Raymond Suttner’s words ‘there are not enough positions to meet everyone’s needs, nor enough wealth to pillage’ (Suttner, 2010, 25), Zuma has only a limited capacity to shore up party unity through such traditional forms of patronage. Zuma’s centrist political instincts tell him to straddle these various divides—in much the same way as he positions himself as a bridgebuilder between the traditional and the modern—appeasing diverse strands of opinion by making conciliatory gestures in one direction followed by compensatory moves in another, with the greatest political good always being the preservation of ANC unity (Malefane, 2010). The composition of his first Cabinet—particularly the economic cluster of ministries—captured this style perfectly. It also highlighted a central paradox of Zuma’s Presidency namely, that this balancing act, the purpose of which is to preserve unity, produces a blurring of the boundaries demarcating the responsibilities of ministers and, therefore, creates the setting for inter-departmental turf wars.

The left, so instrumental in his rise to the ANC presidency, was rewarded with a number of prizes which, theoretically, placed it at the heart of the economic policymaking process. Trevor Manuel, considered by the left to be a principal architect of Mbeki’s despised ‘neo-liberal’ policies, was removed from the Finance Ministry where he had served for 13 years, a key left objective. In addition, leftists were appointed to strategically important positions, such as the SACP’s Robert Davies at Trade and Industry, and Cosatu’s Ebrahim Patel at the new Economic Development ministry. Yet, Zuma also signalled continuity and stability to the markets with the appointment of an economic pragmatist at Finance in Pravin Gordhan who promised (and has effectively delivered) no significant deviation from Manuel’s approach. Most worryingly for the left, its nemesis, Trevor Manuel, actually returned to government as a potentially influential player in policy formulation. He would now serve as head of the NPC which would be empowered, in theory, to set a medium to long-term course for government and to establish priorities for all departments. With Manuel in such a prominent role it was difficult to envisage the NPC—whatever Stalinist associations its name may conjure up—serving as anything but a custodian of the post-1996 economic direction. The left is sensitive to this threat, with Cosatu in particular developing a fixation with Manuel whom they accuse of harbouring ambitions to become an ‘imperial prime minister’ (Musgrave -2, 2009) and insisting that Patel, and not Manuel or Finance, should direct the country’s economic course. That the left should be so wary of national planning provides one of the more obvious ironies of contemporary South African politics and one symptomatic of the current turbulence within the ANC alliance. A major confrontation on this issue cannot be postponed indefinitely, although Zuma’s reflex response is to submerge these differences with ritualistic calls for unity and the convening of alliance summits to reduce tensions, although differences normally resurface within a relatively short time frame.

These tensions over macro-economic policy are being augmented by a jostling for position within what was once the Zuma camp ahead of the ANC’s 2012 National Conference, in particular over the position of Secretary-General although it is unlikely to remain confined to that. The more conservative (if rhetorically militant) African nationalist element of the party—in which the Youth League has emerged as a key player—are seeking one of their own, the former Youth League president Fikile Mbalula, to replace the incumbent, Gwede Mantashe, with the SACP and Cosatu seeking to rally behind him (Letsoalo & Rossouw, 2010). Amidst this cacophony of discordant voices over both policy and positions, Zuma has seemed immobilised, his voice muted bar some ineffective scolding of those causing disunity (Ngalwa & Kgosana, 2010) and some rather optimistic calls for a return to ‘revolutionary discipline’ (Business Day, 2010). From Zuma’s perspective, however, attempting to restore order by taking a firm position on policy matters or on factional tensions risks destabilising the ANC.

This, in turn, points towards the irresistible conclusion that the ANC—whatever its considerable merits in conducting a liberation struggle, or in stabilising South African democracy in its first decade—has now become too unwieldy and cumbersome a vehicle to act with common purpose and to provide the effective government South Africa requires; indeed, its disparate structure virtually guarantees paralysis. Attempting to placate the ANC’s various factions is now detracting from the more urgent business of government and is likely to prove an impossible task, even for the most accomplished leader. Zuma’s description of alliance unity as ‘the issue of primary importance’ (Sparks, 2010) identifies him as an intensely parochial politician. Everything must be subordinated to the immediate priority of keeping a rickety ANC ship afloat for, while it may be increasingly drained of ideals and moral capital, the brand itself remains electorally potent and it, therefore, continues to provide a gateway to power and patronage. The inevitable consequence of this is that important decisions are endlessly deferred even if this was initially characterised more benignly as skilful party management and the emergence of a new spirit of inclusiveness and consultation. Over time, however, and in the context of continuing socio-economic failure, it has come to be viewed less generously as a debilitating vacillation and indecision.

Thus, the paradox of Zuma’s post-election call for more rapid socio-economic development is that the eclectic nature of the ANC itself impedes the achievement of this goal. Although a final judgement would be premature at this stage, Zuma’s exaggerated deference to the collective threatens to invalidate the central purpose of presidential leadership: to set a clear course for the country. That deference is rooted in a culture of overcompensation for Mbeki’s micro-managerialism, but it also liberates Zuma from the need to make definitive political choices and to articulate a coherent philosophy to inform the actions of the ANC in government.

Conclusion: A Virtual President?

When Zuma took office, the hope was that he might offer not just geniality but vision and idealism with the capacity to make South Africans feel good about themselves and their country even if, in contrast to Mbeki, the detail of government business would be delegated to others. In those respects, Zuma has failed during his first two years in office as his lack of drive and vision—and the competing range of interests around him—combined to produce an incapacitated Presidency, much the weakest of the post-1994 era, Motlanthe’s caretaker stewardship apart. His principal successes came in his first months in office as he conveyed a softer presidential image by discarding ‘the paranoia and insecurity that were … the primary hallmarks of the Mbeki years’ (Calland, 2009). However, with the important exceptions of his repudiation of Mbeki’s denialism on HIV/AIDS and the country’s accession to the BRICS forum, the record on matters of political substance is thin since 2009.

So deep were the levels of disenchantment that less than three months after Zuma took office Anthony Butler (2009) was bemoaning an ’empty space where the country has needed a good leader to be’, and within a year William Gumede (2010) was complaining of a ‘paralysing feeling of anxiety, drift and imminent collapse’. In July 2010, 14 months into his Presidency, Karima Brown (-2, 2010) was openly discussing whether Zuma ‘might not last the year, never mind get a second term in the Presidency in 2014’, and Moipone Malefane (2010) was speaking of a ‘president under siege’. By late 2010, Zuma despite, or perhaps because of, his search for consensus had also alienated two constituencies crucial to his victory at Polokwane. The ANC Youth League resented his failure to embrace nationalisation as party policy and his rebuke of its president Julius Malema for ‘sowing disunity’ (The Economist, 2010, 61). The league responded by openly speculating about withdrawing its support from Zuma in 2012. Cosatu, too, was agnostic on the question of a second term because of Zuma’s failure to engineer a decisive break with Mbeki’s economic policy and his lethargic approach to corruption within the movement (Letsoalo, 2010). True, Zuma’s accessibility and affability had produced a post- Mbeki glasnost and an improvement in the overall political atmospherics but, although welcome, this hardly provided compensation for an inability to drive South Africa forward in his own priority areas of education, employment, crime prevention, health care, and rural development. Despite Zuma’s commitment to faster and more effective service delivery, actual socio-economic transformation remains elusive for millions of people on the ground.

The verdict on Zuma’s first two years in power is that all of the major questions posed when he entered the Union Buildings remain unanswered, and many of the doubts about his capacity to provide effective presidential leadership have been confirmed. The personal scandals in which he has become embroiled have served to undermine his standing, and any president with such a ‘colourful’ private life must appreciate that in a democratic state it will inevitably find its way into the public domain and become a highly politicised issue. In the main, however, he has struggled to erase two negative impressions that are shaping and defining his presidency. First, that however skilful a political campaigner he may be, Zuma travels light ideologically. Consequently, he appears ill-equipped for the demands of the Presidency lacking the intellectual depth and political imagination from which innovative policy ideas might flow. Being of no fixed ideological abode and having no overarching strategic vision also means that Zuma risks being continually buffeted by events and by short-term political imperatives, producing a ship of state that is, in Suttner’s words, being ‘left on autopilot’ and is ‘half sinking, half sailing’ (Carlisle, 2010). Unlike the most dynamic heads of government, he is unable to make the political weather and gives the strong impression of being a transitional leader for whom securing the Presidency was not the means to an end, but was the end. Second, he fails to exhibit any of the customary attributes of successful presidential leadership: boldness, decisiveness, a clear sense of direction, and a willingness to face down vested interests, including erstwhile allies. Instead, Zuma prefers to tell highly diverse audiences what they wish to hear and, consequently, his Presidency is permanently anchored in crisis management with prevarication, muddling through, and the papering over of ANC cracks becoming cherished principles. This has produced policy outcomes which, although they are designed to appease all strands of ANC opinion, are ultimately satisfying to no particular faction within the broad church and merely serve as a prelude to further acrimony.

Jacob Zuma’s relative popularity since May 2009—he has never fallen below 43 percent and has never risen above 58 percent in opinion surveys—has rested not on his own distinctive body of ideas or compelling vision for the country but on the fact that he has acquired a genial public persona, has not fulfilled the worst constitutional fears of his critics and, above all, is not Thabo Mbeki. These were useful sources of short-term political capital certainly, but they do not provide a platform for long-term success. It would obviously be rash to dismiss a politician with such well-honed survival skills as Jacob Zuma, someone whose political obituary has been prematurely written on several occasions. However, if he does retain the presidencies of both party and state then it will be attributable not to any enthusiasm for his leadership but rather the lack of an obvious alternative, and because, in Calland’s words, there is ‘little appetite within the ANC for another ruthless recall à la Mbeki or a bloody succession battle’ (Calland, 2010). That said, a continued decline in Zuma’s popularity, further scandals, or a poor 2011 local election performance by the ANC could either singly or collectively reshape the dynamics of that debate ahead of the 2012 ANC National Conference. This barely amounts to a tepid endorsement of his leadership and it suggests that there may now be a belated recognition within the ANC that the movement acted in error when electing him, its revulsion at Mbeki’s power plays causing it to take too indulgent a view of Zuma’s deficiencies.

While the possibility of a successful Zuma Presidency should not be dismissed—although definitions of ‘success’ may be subject to considerable revision—those failings appear to be pointing South Africa towards one of three potential outcomes:

  • Another terminated or ‘recalled’ presidency, albeit at an earlier stage, an outcome likely to trigger a rebellion in Zuma’s KwaZulu-Natal heartland and create a crisis in the ANC. The image of chronic political instability this would convey—two presidencies prematurely ended within a short time frame—would also be detrimental to South Africa’s global standing, thus making it an unlikely although not inconceivable scenario.
  • An under-achieving two-term presidency, limping along purely because a divided ANC is incapable of forging a consensus around an agreed successor.
  • A squandered, one-term presidency in which a growing sense of economic and social crisis prompts a search for a more capable administrator.

At the time of writing, scenarios two or three seem much the more plausible, although the speed of Mbeki’s fall counsels caution when predicting potential South African futures. Overall, the political theatre in which Jacob Zuma excels provides for more than a colourful and eye-catching diversion. It energises politics and plays its part in bridging the gap between political elites and masses so apparent under his predecessor, but it must always be used to supplement and reinforce effective government rather than providing a substitute for it, as has too often been the case since May 2009.