As I stepped off a very uncomfortable flight from South Africa, it became clear that the African National Congress party had not won the two thirds majority it needed to make unchallenged changes to the constitution. It was also clear that no one else on that plane cared very much about the South African elections.
My fellow passengers were oblivious to the implications of the ANC’s loss of the Western Cape, the centre of the tourist industry, which fell for the first time to the Democratic Alliance. Or worse, the hugely symbolic loss of Robben Island, the former prison island where Nelson Mandela and many ANC leaders were imprisoned during the apartheid years.
But despite the ANC’s failure to hang onto a two thirds majority it was still an undeniable victory and all eyes will now be on Zuma’s financial decisions. Attention will be especially focused on Zuma’s handling of finance minister, Trevor Manuel, who resigned alongside Mbeki, but was later reinstated and has made it clear that he would serve under Zuma. Manuel is a darling of the west, a good economist and a political bruiser. Like any good transatlantic politician, he somehow benefitted from a flattering biography hitting the bookstores shortly before the elections.
Manuel, however, has signalled that he wants to run all the planning ministries. The ANC is big on “planning”‘ (read “control”), and it’s a planning culture which is often more regulative than facilitative. Much of this is still a hangover from the apartheid public administration systems but Manuel can’t control everything—and he’s not the only politician who is “owed.”
The way Zuma inserted the knives into Mbeki’s back demanded a lot of help from many people, so it will likely be a rather mixed bag of a cabinet, with a number of tsotsis (thugs) alongside genuinely capable people.
As for the idea of a rainbow cabinet, the west doesn’t know it but the ideals of the Mandela era have little practical purpose in the South Africa of today. He is an dignified old man who is treated with graciousness and wheeled out to endorse the ANC, but government personnel wouldn’t be caught dead in a Mandela shirt anymore.
The Zuma presidency might surprise a lot of people by its smooth progress. During the first 100 days it will seek to reassure the west. A lot of promises will be made but the pace of social provision has got to pick up. Two things to avoid are developing a dependent and recipient culture among South Africa’s poor, and allowing the political providers to become richer by increasingly corrupt rakeoffs. Both will probably happen.
The focus has subtly changed from a concern about corruption—basically everyone is now a little corrupt—to a focus on legality and constitutionality. Zuma’s rightwing friends won’t be able to banish gays because of the equalities conferred by this constitution. The HIV/Aids programmes will roll out more comprehensively than under Mbeki. Pressure will be put on Zimbabwe, not in support of the MDC, but to persuade ZANU-PF to send Mugabe into comfortable retirement.
What the west needs to learn is that Zuma might come across as a crude populist without cultivated style, but he for the 12m South Africans who voted for him he is a hugely charismatic and appealing figure. That much has not been corrupted in the brave, new, flawed South Africa.