Saturday, March 8, 2008

el participante, volume 1 issue 3

Post-Apartheid South African Politics

Many charismatic leaders emerged out of the fifty-year struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. African National Congress (ANC) icon Nelson Mandela is perhaps the best known, but student leader Steven Bantu Biko, Walter Sisulu of the ANC, Pan-African Congress party leader Robert Sobukwe, and South African Communist Party secretary-general Chris Hani were equally important in the anti-apartheid movement. Over the four trying years that immediately followed the end of apartheid, these leaders of the former liberation movement and their groups, particularly the ANC, achieved decisive political ascendancy.

Ever since its victory in the 1994 elections, the ANC has been relatively unchallenged. It has been able to maintain this success is largely due to the nature of its “historic compromise.” Once in power, the ANC immediately sought to institutionalize the political voice of its partners in the anti-apartheid struggle, creating an alliance between itself, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and the South African Communist Party (SACP). The Tripartite Alliance has generally endorsed the ANC candidates in national elections, thereby consolidating the vote of the left and internalizing political debate.

The Alliance’s early successes rested on an extremely progressive Constitution and the Labour Relations Act, which established a high level of worker’s rights, although it did not provide for centralized bargaining across industries and sectors. The subsequent passage of the Redistribution and Development Programme similarly affirmed the social democratic spirit of the Alliance. Popularly seen as the “people’s programme,” it guaranteed redistribution first and set forth a model of a developmental state, with an extensive social “safety net” based on its people-centered and “basic needs” approach.

Soon after its victory in 1994, however, the ANC began to rethink its economic policy. It inherited a state facing increasing debt, unemployment, high interest rates, and a tradition of protectionism. South Africa was a new nation in an increasingly hostile international environment of globalization. Fearing capital flight from South Africa, and eager to sooth the concerns of foreign investors, the ANC made an economic policy shift. The social democracy that had been at the heart of the anti-apartheid movement and the Alliance quickly eroded with the adoption of a new macroeconomic policy, Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR).

The ANC thus began to concentrate on externally driven, globally competitive growth through a neo-liberal agenda that stressed macroeconomic stability rather than internal development. It was a self-imposed structural adjustment program, similar to those imposed on developing nations by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. GEAR was supposed to create up to 270,000 new jobs, however it actually resulted in the loss of 125,000 jobs. Although strong labor laws have made it difficult for employers to hire and fire workers, the major winner of this shift was big business. Nationally, the GEAR policy has lowered the budget deficit, public debt, and inflation. It has also increased poverty and inequality and limited foreign direct investment.

This new capitalist agenda championed by the ANC have led to high growth rates but have also further entrenched the class divides in the post-apartheid state. Mandela left office in 1999 after one term with most promises of the ANC unfulfilled, including rights to free education, free housing, and access to basic services, problems which persist today. South Africans wait years for government housing and students protest the expensive fees and mounting debts for their education.

Today, South Africa ranks as one of the most unequal societies in the world, right behind Brazil. High growth rates of GDP have been accompanied by even higher unemployment, resulting in a “jobless growth.” The primary benefactors of the shift to majority rule has been the black middle class, yet what remained in the wake of an incredible political transformation was an extremely economically and socially divided society. This exacerbated the existing conditions of violent crime, HIV/AIDS and lack of access to basic services such as water and electricity for a large percentage of the country’s population—especially those in rural areas.

Consequently, frustration and disillusionment, especially among those who have remained in poverty through the transition, have permeated the national mood and created internal rifts within the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance. In the past, the COSATU and SACP—whose class-consciousness and mobilization of the black working class was crucial to the large-scale social change that the anti-apartheid movement created—had often encouraged the sloganeering of the ANC and supported the Mbeki administration in order to maintain broad support. However, after GEAR the two groups became increasingly critical of the ANC, particularly when Mbeki excavated his socialist rhetoric when it was politically advantageous.

Many members of the ANC became similarly disillusioned with Mbeki and his standard aloofness. These tensions erupted last December, when the ANC elected Jacob Zuma over incumbent South African President Thabo Mbeki as its party leader, and thus the most likely ANC presidential candidate in the April 2009 elections.

Well before the December vote, Mbeki had gathered a reputation for being an alienating figure, within the ANC and within the country more generally—never able to emulate the charisma of his predecessor. His peculiar stance on the HIV/AIDS pandemic—that HIV does not lead to AIDS—has elicited debates in a country that faces some of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world. Furthermore, Mbeki has staffed his cabinet and ministries with supporters of his brand of denialism. Critics accuse him of corruption and centralization within his administration. He has sharply dissented with his left-wing allies in SACP, antagonizing its current leader Blade Nzimande, and the workers of the COSATU. They have in turn thrown their weight behind Zuma.

Zuma is the only significant opposition candidate. Many news outlets have focused on the personality of Zuma in their coverage of the December election. A former houseboy, Zuma rose through the ranks of the anti-apartheid movement, eventually making a name for himself as a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed branch of the ANC. The former secretariat of the COSATU, Zuma has campaigned on guaranteed incomes for the poor and advocated the nationalization of basic industries. Zuma has garnered support from the COSATU, the SACP, and also the youth and womens’ leagues. Zuma has amassed considerable support in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, a traditional Zulu stronghold. Zuma is an ethnic Zulu himself, yet many argue that people from Kwa-Zulu Natal identify more with his populist message and similar background, growing up in poor rural area, than with his ethnicity.

Zuma has portrayed himself as distinctly anti-Mbeki. His populism contrasts significantly with the elite intellectual image of Mbeki. This populist image, however, contradicts his previously moderate stance within the ANC. There is no evidence to suggest that he intends to actually implement his populist agenda. He has called himself a socialist at times, but he has also moved to ensure the protection of foreign investments, even going so far as to meet with Western and Asian donors to allay their worries.

Zuma, like Mbeki, has also courted controversy. Mbeki himself dismissed Zuma from his position as Vice President, after charges of corruption and bribery (for which he was convicted), and rape (for which he was later acquitted). In that highly publicized trial, he was ridiculed for his odd views on sex, which included assertions that he did not contract HIV because he showered after unprotected intercourse with an HIV-positive woman. Regarding Zuma, Mbeki has argued that “the ANC must not elect someone the country will be ashamed of.”

Almost as soon as his victory was announced in December, Zuma was hit eighteen charges of corruption for a $4 billion weapons deal. The maneuver is seen by many in government as Mbeki’s last attempt to deter Zuma’s candidacy in next year’s general elections and to hold rank.

The constitutionality of these charges are currently being assessed by the country’s highest court. If they are affirmed and he faces trial and is convicted, Zuma’s ability to stand as ANC candidate for presidency will evaporate. Zuma’s conviction—which seems more than likely, given the fact that Zuma’s financial advisor has already been convicted—would seem to augur the end of the Tripartite Alliance, as SACP and COSATU would almost undoubtedly endorse another candidate. Having been so far exemplar of one-party politics, it appears that after fourteen years, young South Africa is finally witnessing the first real test of its democracy.

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