South African elections a test for President Zuma
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]outh Africa will hold general elections to the National Assembly or the lower house of parliament and the state legislatures May 7. This will be the fifth elections since the end of apartheid in 1994. It is also the first after the demise of the Father of the Nation, Nelson Mandela, on Dec 5, 2013.
The polls are crucial not only for South Africa but also for the entire continent as it continues to be the growth engine of Africa despite competition from the fast growing economies of Angola, Namibia and Nigeria.The African National Congress (ANC), as the persistent fighter against apartheid, holds sway in eight out of nine states of the country and is poised to be returned to power in spite of the fact that its popularity is on the wane with the declining image of President Jacob Zuma. When Mandela took the reins of the government after the ANC’s historic win in the first general elections in 1994, Zuma was busy building the party in Kwa-Zulu Natal, which historically was the bastion of Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).
Mandela’s government of national unity included both the National Party (NP) of the whites and the IFP of the Zulus. The ANC had secured 252 seats, the NP 82 and the IFP 43 seats in the first elections. Today, the NP is nowhere on the political scene and the IFP remains marginalised. The ANC, however, has retained its two-thirds majority in successive polls in 1999, 2004 and 2009.
In 2009, it won 264 seats with a vote share of 65.90 percent. Whether the ANC will be able to hold on to this figure is still in doubt as the Democratic Alliance of Helen Zille, the premier of Western Cape, is fast capturing the imagination of the voters. It is the main opposition to the ANC in parliament, followed by the Congress of the People (COPE) led by Mosiuoa Lekota, a splinter group of the ANC which successfully contested elections in 2009 and entered parliament for the first time by winning 30 seats. In 2009, the Democratic Alliance won 67 seats followed by COPE with 30 and IFP with a mere 18.
Former president Thabo Mbeki, who took over from Mandela and successfully steered the government till 2008, is a political rival of Zuma, who was his deputy. Zuma was dismissed as deputy president following his reported involvement in a corruption scandal relating to a multimillion-dollar arms deal with French manufacturer Thint. However, when the court ruled that the prosecution of Zuma was influenced by Mbeki due to political motives, pressure mounted on Mbeki who tendered his resignation in 2008.
Since then, Zuma has not looked back. He has demolished the influence of Julius Malema, his onetime close associate, now a controversial rival and former president of the ANC’s Youth League, by expelling him from the party. Malema now heads the Economic Freedom Fighters, a South African political movement opposed to the ANC. Although described as reckless in his political tactics, Malema continues to draw youth to his movement, a worrying factor for the ANC leadership.
Over the last five years, Zuma has attained an international stature with his active participation in the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) and Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) summits. He is a leading voice of developing nations. The Libyan crisis of 2011 saw him on the side of Col. Gaddafi in an attempt to broker a peace deal between the government and rebel forces. However, when he pushed for mediation in Zimbabwe last year, President Robert Mugabe didn’t feel the need for it.
After 20 years of freedom, issues that are causing great concern in South Africa relate to massive corruption by politicians and bureaucracy. Rising unemployment (over 22 percent) is leading to an increase in crimes and general sense of insecurity. When this writer visited South Africa last year, a trip to Cape Town was most revealing. Just outside the city, one could see shanty towns spread over thousands of acres. Zuma paid a visit to the townships and blamed the local government led by the whites. Mandela’s dream to emancipate blacks from their economic backwardness remains yet to be fulfilled. By introducing economic programmes like RDP and GEAR, the ANC has tried to overcome many economic challenges over the last 15 years. But much more needs to be done.
As South Africa goes to the polls, Zuma not only faces economic and social challenges; he needs to clear his name in a raging scandal involving his private rural home in Nkandla. According to reports, the changes to this home, including a pool and cattle enclosure, allegedly cost taxpayers about $23 million. In her 400-plus page report, Public Protector (similar to India’s CAG) Thuli Madonsela has accused Zuma of unethical conduct. She had started her investigation in 2012. Far from accepting the findings, Zuma’s supporters have been accusing her of bias, even though she has an impeccable record of being an honest fighter against corruption.
In an interview to The Sunday Times, COPE president Lekota had indicated his willingness to ally with the Democratic Alliance in case it ever entered the government. There is no immediate possibility of this although indications are clear that any amount of complacency on the part of the ANC leadership will cost it heavily in the not so distant future.
(Vijay Naik is a senior Indian journalist based in Delhi. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)