|On Saturday 9 May 2009, Jacob Zuma, leader of the African National Congress (ANC), was sworn in as the fourth president of a democratic, non-racial South Africa in front of thousands of cheering supporters and hundreds of international guests, including some 30 heads of state, among them those of Zimbabwe, Libya and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
For Zuma, it was clearly a personal triumph. Rather than going to school, he spent his childhood herding his grandfather’s goats. He joined the liberation struggle as a teenager, learned to read and write as an adult, took part in the underground and armed struggles against apartheid, served time on the notorious Robben Island, and, on his release, became the highly effective leader of the ANC’s intelligence service, making a major contribution to the liberation of the country.
Nor has he had an easy time of things in recent years. Indeed it was only on 6 April, just a fortnight before the election on 22 April, that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) finally dropped corruption charges against him, bringing to an end eight years of politically-inspired legal proceedings.
Beyond Zuma’s personal circumstances, therefore, his election also represents a political victory for the ANC in overcoming right-wing factionalism and a potentially damaging split and retaining its status as the political representative of the oppressed masses.
After Zuma had been elected president of the ANC at its 52nd National Conference in December 2007, followed by the recalling of his predecessor Thabo Mbeki from the presidency of the country by the ANC’s ruling National Executive Committee in September 2008, the ANC faced potentially the most damaging split in its history of nearly a century, with the formation of a breakaway party, which soon took the name of Congress of the People (Cope). (For detailed background on Zuma’s election, see ‘52nd National Conference of the ANC: A great step forward for the national-democratic revolution’, Lalkar, March 2008)
This name was deceptively aimed to associate this group of opportunist and neo-liberal renegades with one of the most iconic events in the history of the liberation struggle – it was the Congress of the People, held in Kliptown, that, on 26 June 1955, adopted the famous Freedom Charter, which enjoys a similar status for the majority of South Africans as the Easter Proclamation of 1916 does for Irish republicans.
In reality, Cope rests on a narrow social base, mostly consisting of a handful of black bourgeois elements, who have been the one-sided beneficiaries of the programme of ‘black economic empowerment’, which has done little or nothing to improve the lives of the poor masses in town or country.
Behind this group stand Cope’s real backers, imperialist interests who still fear the ANC’s revolutionary potential, based on its history, its deep roots among the oppressed, and its continued alliance with the communist party and the organised workers, which Zuma champions.
Their aim was for Cope to make a decisive inroad into the ANC’s vote this time, opening the way to a realignment of South African politics through a possible merger with the white-dominated Democratic Alliance (DA), with the fond, but as we shall see forlorn, hope of toppling the ANC from power in a few years’ time. According to The Economist, the target was for Cope to grab 30 percent of the vote this time. (See ‘A big win for a big new man’, The Economist, 30 April 2009)
However, as the saying goes, ‘God proposes, man (in this case, the popular masses of South Africa) disposes.’ The ANC secured 65.9 percent of the vote on an 80 percent turnout, the highest since the first democratic elections of 1994, and triumphed in all but one of the country’s nine provinces.
This last was won by the DA, which, on 16.6 percent, remains the country’s biggest opposition party. (Although, as even the DA’s chief strategist Ryan Coetzee points out, just one in 50 blacks are prepared to vote for the party.) Cope, on which imperialism had placed such high hopes, polled a mere 7.42 percent, and its long-term future must be in doubt.
Moreover, the ANC significantly strengthened its base among Zuma’s own Zulu people, intensifying the apparently terminal decline of the right-wing and communalist Inkhata Freedom Party (IFP), which received just 4.6 percent of the national vote, compared to 11 percent in 1994.
In its heartland of KwaZulu Natal, the IFP vote fell from 37 percent at the last election to 21 percent this time.
Practically the one crumb of comfort that the ANC’s opponents attempted to draw was that, with 264 seats in the national assembly, the party is just three seats short of the two-thirds majority that would enable it to change the constitution without support from any other parties. However, this rather overlooks the repeated statements of Zuma and other ANC leaders that they have neither any desire nor any intention to change the constitution!
It is still too early to draw definite conclusions as to how the Zuma-led government will perform in office. Whilst he has so far proceeded carefully and cautiously, it is faced with both great expectations and great tasks.
The Economist noted some of the achievements of ANC governments to date:
“The ANC government has set up Africa’s only broad-based welfare state, providing cash benefits to 12.5m people compared with just 3m in 1996. To help get people out of the sprawling, squalid shantytowns it has built 2.7m low-cost homes, housing around 10m people. Some 80 percent of all households are now connected to electricity and clean water – up by a third since 1996. More than half of state schools no longer charge fees. Free health clinics are gradually being set up. After years of shameful denial of any link between the HIV virus and AIDS, some 60 percent of the 5.7m infected are at last receiving antiretrovirals. Violent crime may still be appallingly high, but it has been falling in almost all categories.” (‘Voting for the people’s man’, 16 April 2009)
However, millions still live in sprawling ‘township’ slums, often on the edge of luxurious white suburbs, without electricity or running water. As the Financial Times reported from the ANC’s final election rally:
“Golden Miles Phudu from Eldorado Park near the vast township of Soweto, wore heavy chains around his bare chest and shoulders. ‘We are 15 years down the road [from 1994’s first democratic elections]. This country is stinking rich but the majority of our people remain in abject poverty’.” (‘Zuma wins backing from Mandela’, 20 April 2009)
Most glaringly, nearly all the country’s best land remains in the hands of rich whites, whilst millions of the black rural poor own nothing and often still toil on white-owned farms under brutal conditions that at times differ little from slavery.
Moreover, South Africa is badly affected by the global financial crisis. As The Economist put it:
“With South Africa sinking into its first recession after 16 years of expansion, the challenges facing the next president are daunting. Business confidence is at a ten-year low. After growth averaging around five percent a year between 2004 and 2007, the economy is expected to contract by around 0.8 percent this year. Mining and manufacturing have been in free fall for six months. Exports and retail trade are following suit. Despite the boost given to the economy by preparations for next year’s football World Cup, which South Africa is hosting, and a government stimulus package of 690bn rand over the next three years, the downturn will cut jobs and increase poverty.” (‘Voting for the people’s man’, op cit)
It is under such adverse conditions that Comrade Zuma’s government will need to work to realise the people’s needs and aspirations. We wish it every success.
> 52nd National Conference of the ANC - Lalkar March 2008