Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tips for riding a Zumanami

There is no doubt Thabo Mbeki was hit by a ‘Zumanami’ at the African National Congress (ANC) conference. He was trounced by Jacob Zuma, who seized the mantle of ANC president. The story is great reading, containing sleaze and power politics. Not since 1994 has so much been written about South Africa. I am not even sure whether I should weigh in on the debate.

But, as I sit staring at my screen, I am inevitably drawn back to the overanalysed story as surely as a jolly smiling fat bloke will always defeat a dull, short and grumpy technocrat when it comes down to a popularity contest (especially at Christmas).

On reflection, the whole affair was poetic (if you were not Mbeki). It was a magnificent demonstration of democracy with the people (well, ANC members) and the underdog winning the day. In an instant, Mbeki crumbled. Suddenly he seemed feeble, nattering on for two hours to a crowd who were not listening but sharpening their voting pencils, ready to make their fateful mark. And, indeed, a mark was made on history.

Zuma, the populist, the come-back kid, and an earthy soldier from the grass roots, has made it to the pinnacle of power (well, almost). He is seemingly destined to be the next South African President. Corruption charges and being acquitted of rape have propelled him forward and added wind to his people-powered sails.

So is this how we like our politicians these days? Fallible but personable? With a weakness for making dodgy friends, but indestructible? Four weddings down and still no funerals? Or is Zuma’s triumph merely a protest vote against the waBenzi – that Mercedes-Benz-driving new elite?

However, unlike fairy tales that end happily ever after, this story still has more pages to burn. Will Zuma shrug off corruption charges? Will Mbeki supporters roll over? And how long until the masses notice that Zuma himself probably has a Merc, if not a fleet? Who knows?

What I do know is that the event received massive international coverage. And, as in South Africa, reviews were mixed. International newspapers such as the New York Times and the UK Financial Times hailed it as a cautious triumph for democracy. The UK Guardian was more sceptical, asking whether South Africa deserved “a better choice than a dubious populist as its leader”.

But what is certain is that South Africa did not collapse with Zuma’s victory as some predicted. Even the rand managed to hold firm. Is this is a sign that politics does not really matter any more and that South Africa is just becoming another boring democracy? Or, as the Financial Times noted, is it because there is no need to worry (if you are a big shot financial investor, that is) because, despite the rhetoric, Zuma “is no radical left winger”.

So the Zumanami has come and gone. On one level, it seems radical. Yet, on another, as the waters subside, I am left feeling the process may be similar to that of a flood. Although a deluge can change everything in its path once the water recedes, people tend to build their houses in the same place. Will that much change?

Any prediction is doomed to failure, it seems. It is like gambling on whether global warming will or will not eventually result in floods sinking New York. Mbeki’s undoing was his remarkable ability to deny the impact of issues such as crime to HIV on ordinary people’s lives. Is a little compassion and affability all that the masses need? I suspect not.

So, JZ, my friend, you had better start waxing your surfboard. It is one thing stirring up a tidal wave, but surfing on the crest for a few years while trying to outwit the anticorruption squad and building several million houses at the same time is another matter.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 18 January 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.