South Africa: The inscrutable fire fighter

South Africa: The inscrutable fire fighter

The ANC and President Zuma have returned to power as expected but with a reduced majority. The writing is on the wall – the party must deliver on a number of issues or else. But the demoting of former Finance Minister Gordhan, according to many, is not an encouraging sign. Tom Nevin discusses.

One editorial opinion summarised South Africa’s recent general election thus: “On reflection our elections are noisier than they are dirty and while there were several worrying incidents of pre-election violence and some electoral glitches on the day – like all those in South Africa’s 20 years of democracy – it was declared free and fair. The winners in this story are always the voters.”

The spoils will go to the victors and they will write the history. But will the triumphant learn from the lessons of this election and are the numbers trying to tell them something?

The victory celebrations of the governing African National Congress (ANC) party were briefer and less spectacular than on earlier such occasions and it’s possible that Africa’s oldest liberation movement had read and understood the writing on the wall: the ship of state had sprung a leak and fewer hands had appeared on deck to help with the baling out.

ANC leader, President Jacob Zuma, put on a brave face when the final numbers confirmed that a million or so erstwhile party faithful had voted with their feet and made their mark in opposition camps. This defection was a significant pointer to South Africa’s widening political ideology because ANC malcontents had gravitated to both ends of the political spectrum in equal numbers.

The big scorers were radical left wingers, headed by political newcomers Economic Freedom Fighters, garnering discontented first-time young voters, many of them out of work, while the right-oriented Democratic Alliance swelled its support significantly across the colour spectrum in both national and provincial polling.

If he is to stop the rot and rebuild party support, President Zuma has his work cut out in dealing with the many fires burning in his administration. He will be emboldened by the fact that he has honed his political alchemy through dealing with prickly issues in his five-year first term.

Zuma is the consummate politician and a master at the way he moves his chess pieces around. He ensures that all flanks are protected, strategies sound and bulletproof and he follows a tactical master plan that keeps him ever a few moves ahead of the game.

More so than his predecessors in the two decades of South Africa’s democratisation Zuma is an ideological inscrutable. Whether this is by accident or design does not really matter; it is a remarkable facility and allows him acceptability by all political, social and economic persuasion.

More than one visitor has walked away from a conversation with the President convinced that he has swayed Zuma to his cause. Above all, the President is avuncular, jolly and fun to be with. More than anything he enjoys a night with the boys, especially if it entails dressing up in Zulu warrior regalia, war dances and lusty singing.


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Written by Tom Nevin

Tom Nevin is a South African journalist, researcher and author and contributes to a selection of publications in South Africa and abroad. He is associate editor of London-based African Business and editor of Business Word Botswana. He is leading a programme that actively promotes small and micro power projects as a first step in encouraging the economic upliftment of the continent rural poor.

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