South Africa lurching between democracy and despotism


Jacob Zuma presides over a political paradox, argues Richard Calland, associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town.

The nation he leads is at long last becoming a competitive multi-party democracy, with the two-decade dominance of the governing African National Congress significantly dented in last month’s municipal elections. Yet, as elected president, Mr Zuma is growing increasingly despotic, and nowhere is this more starkly illustrated than in his mercurial treatment of Pravin Gordhan, his own minister of finance, he writes for The Financial Times:

Through loyal henchmen at the helm of the Hawks, a special organised crime and anti-corruption unit of the police force, Mr Zuma has repeatedly sought to undermine Mr Gordhan — who has rebuilt relations with business, tackled wasteful expenditure in government and challenged bad governance in state-owned enterprises — and to intimidate him by threatening to arrest and charge him with bogus offences relating to an alleged South African Revenue Service “rogue unit” set up when Mr Gordhan headed the tax authority that have no basis in law.

This presents the ANC with a profound question: should it heed voters’ concerns and arrest the decline in governance standards that has persistently eroded investor confidence in South Africa in recent times? And, if so, how?

This might look like a factional battle with good guys on one side and bad guys on the other. But the challenge of economic transformation within a racially polarised capitalist economy provided opportunities for careerism, personal enrichment and corruption, argues analyst Roger Southall:

At the heart of the morality problems faced by the ANC are fundamental forms of relations it has carved with capital as driven by two principal factors. Firstly, as a political party the ANC has needed funding. Secondly, there is the factor of how the ANC has chosen to promote what it terms the National Democratic Revolution, most notably through Black Economic Empowerment.

It is a critical time, with significant uncertainty and risks, adds Calland, a co-founder of The Paternoster Group:

If Mr Zuma survives and maintain his grip on his party, he might be emboldened to “do a Putin” by running for a third term as ANC president with a view to protecting his interests from the back seat with a loyal puppet as state president after 2019. All of which is to assume, of course, that the ANC is still in a position to win a majority by then.

Executive Director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise, Ann Bernstein – a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy – deliberates on South Africa’s economic development while drawing recommendations from the Growth Agenda series of reports on how to get South Africa back on track (above).

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