Ahead of the World Cup, South Africa’s politics is in as dismal a state as its national football team
Jacob Zuma and the ANC won a huge electoral victory in South Africa’s 2009 elections, and just over a year later, the beautiful stadia built for the World Cup are an exact legacy: beautiful and, for most of the time, empty. The one in Durban was modelled on the pattern of the South African flag, and has an arch like Wembley’s. The one in Nelspruit, a small town 760 km from Durban, has 46,000 seats coloured to form a gigantic zebra pattern—an animal most South Africans have never seen. The zebras are on the game parks, seen by tourists, while most South Africans—despite small pockets of immense wealth—are still largely poor. A huge number live in desperate situations in urban townships. It was these people who voted for the ANC and who follow the fortunes of Jacob Zuma.
Landing at the end of May, days before the World Cup, I asked the driver to take me through Alexandra. It’s on the way to Sandton, the Knightsbridge of Johannesburg, where every luxury can be bought. Nelson Mandela Square somewhat embarrassingly presides over conspicuous, high-end consumerism. But most visitors will be taken to their Sandton hotels by a circuitous route. It’s also a longer one. White people still don’t like driving through Alex, as it’s known, a place where poverty and violence coexist. This was where xenophobic riots broke out two years ago against Zimbabweans, spreading out across the country and leaving 62 people dead.
I’ve been going through Alex for 20 years. It’s improving, though it’s still poor. On the hillside edges of the district, the ANC has built a large number of new housing units, but many in the squalid valley will not move into them. They don’t want to pay for the electricity and utilities they contain. Or rather, they can’t pay for them.
This is the ambivalent heart of Jacob Zuma’s brave South Africa. Buildings can be built, but no one can be housed without a huge rise in employment. Now, even those in jobs are highly vulnerable to the economic downturn and, when I arrived, the city was gripped by a wave of strikes. Tokyo Sexwale, reputedly one of the richest men in South Africa, one of Zuma’s key allies during the overthrow of former President Thabo Mbeki, has been made minister for human settlements—he’s in charge of housing. It’s an incongruity on top of the ambivalence. One of the country’s richest men goes walkabout to masquerade as one of the people.
Yet Sexwale, like at least two other veteran ANC politicians, has serious designs on succeeding Jacob Zuma himself. All these contenders are in their seventies. Sexwale has the benefit of having married a white woman and can claim he embodies the rainbow nation. The corporations trust him. He can do more than someone who has only been a politician all his life—he resigned from politics in 1997 to establish a successful mining and energy company, before returning . But he has made his run too early, letting the stories of his ambition circulate before the World Cup.
Unlike Zuma, however, he at least doesn’t have to worry about how to maintain a growing number of families. The polygamous president had the embarrassment of reading in the newspapers how the electricity had been disconnected from the home of one of his wives. The bills had not been paid. Zuma’s salary is having difficulty covering his vast domestic arrangements, and the huge legal difficulties he encountered from Mbeki’s pursuit of him on questions of corruption are not something he wants to endure again. The suave Sexwale has only one wife to cater for—and he has quite enough money, although much of his empire was built on invisibles that have suffered during the economic crisis.
Yet the canny presidential aspirant is not Sexwale. It may yet be the turn of Mathews Phosa, the ANC treasurer. He never says an open word about his ambitions, and he probably is, like Sexwale, on the centre-right of his party. But who really knows? Everyone’s attention is drawn instead to the antics and noise of Julius Malema—the boisterous idiot leader of the ANC Youth League. He was the one who sang songs about killing Boers in March, inflaming the divisions that still mark the country. The ANC keeps disciplining him. He’s meant to be on an anger-management course. But the party refuses to sack him. Many people think Malema exists under instruction to test the waters. He certainly is an actor—much more skilled and thoughtful about how to make his provocations than outsiders can acknowledge. Indeed, there are some people who think he is controlled by Mathews Phosa.
So that leaves the ambitions of the deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, who was also the caretaker president between Mbeki and Zuma. He hopes to be the compromise choice. But all three men scheme on the assumption that Zuma will retire after one five-year term. Whether Zuma goes voluntarily, or whether the disposal of Mbeki has begun a new ANC tradition of palace coups no one knows. It has nothing to do with democracy by the people—that much is certain.
And the insider viciousness of ANC politics is directly mirrored in the more public viciousness that is tearing apart COPE, the fledgling party that broke away from the ANC after Zuma wrested the party leadership from Mbeki. The man who led the breakaway, “Terror” Lekota, has been locked in a very public fight-to-the-death with the man who probably funds the party, Mbhazima Shilowa. COPE is not proving a viable part of what some hoped might be an opposition alliance, with the Western Cape-based Democratic Alliance of Helen Zille—the white woman whom Julius Malema accused of treating her male advisers like concubines.
With the opposition divided, Malema is free to play to sexist and racist sentiment, and the ANC will continue to rule by rotating old men at the top, what is the future for South Africa? Its World Cup is an exact analogy. The shell, like a gleaming new football stadium, is beautiful. The people, like the fans, are exuberant and passionate, and wait for their team to deliver on the field. The team is there, by rights, as host—although their world ranking is dismal. Only the New Zealand team, embarrassingly in the South African context called the “All Whites,” to differentiate it from the rugby All Blacks, had a similar ranking, when it entered the 1982 World Cup. So it’s a case of being at the top table, but not really being able to deliver the goods the role demands. The lead striker of the South African team has, like most of the ANC top brass who fought against apartheid in exile, returned from his overseas club to lead his national team. The sports writers have taken one look at him and say he is unfit and fat.
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