IS the populist Jacob Zuma still popular? That's the question that is increasingly being asked not only by South Africans but also by students of African politics.
When he came to power in 2008 President Zuma inherited a country that was beset by strikes but not at the level where it is now. These strikes have been escalating since 2010 culminating in the civil service strike that almost crippled the South African economy. And in 2012 the strikes went on unabated. There has been considerable repression of popular protest during most of those protests. But the Marikana tragedy this year must have been the final denouement.
Dark clouds are now gathering on the Zuma presidency. And this is ironic because Zuma was slated in as the man who would address the 'mess' that former President Thabo Mbeki left behind. I think people were over-excited. "Jacob Zuma's rise to the top in the African National Congress (ANC) could spell a slight shift to the socialist and leftist leanings in that party". That was the conclusion, in 2008, by two Namibian academics: Graham Hopwood and Joseph Diescho.
In an article that I wrote in 2008, in New Era newspaper: "Zooming in on Zuma: Populist or Socialist?" I said, "predicting African politics can be a hazardous, if not a dangerous, undertaking." I am sure the two academics were at best thinking wishfully. The other view that was making rounds, at Polokwane during the ANC conference, was that unlike Mbeki, Zuma was a populist and thus close to the people.
Mbeki was seen as an elitist and thus removed from the proverbial ordinary man on the street. But most people were actually missing the point in all this. We must understand that at no point, even when he was the vice-president either of the ANC or of government, did Zuma espouse or profess any socialist values and ideals. Thus, that he could suddenly become one was a dream of grand magnitude. Even Mbeki could have done better than Zuma on this score.
In recent years, however, Zuma has come under intense criticism for his poor handling of labour unrest in South Africa especially in the crucial mining sector and also has been criticised for spending a purported N$250 million in government funds on improving his rural private residence. Surely this can only happen in Africa!
Broadly speaking, he faces persistent criticism of his leadership of the ANC since he took over the reign of the party from the astute Mbeki. Even his onetime 'foot soldier', Julius Malema said that Mbeki was a better president than Zuma.
People are now looking for an exit strategy. Some are now urging his Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe, to challenge President Jacob Zuma, at Manguang, for the leadership of the ruling African National Congress – a position that would all but guarantee him the presidency of the nation.
A new biography, by Ebrahim Harvey, portrays Motlanthe as the person who could rescue the ANC's credibility in the eyes of those who are disappointed with the party's failure to stem social and economic inequality. And we know now that inequality in SA, just like here in Namibia, has been increasing amidst the wealth and macro-economic growth of these two countries – these are 'revolutions that lost their way', to borrow from Andrew Astrow's analysis of Zimbabwe.
This is all contrary to the hype that followed Zuma's election as someone who came on a ticket of populism and as some claimed, at the time, a leftist who would inject socialist policies in the broader South Africa socio-economic system.
Here enters Motlanthe. When he served as President of South Africa for eight months one could discern some qualities which are different from those of Zuma. I think he is more restraining person and someone who shies away from populism. I'm sure he is not likely to say: 'kill all the Boers/whites' like Zuma once said. Harvey writes. "Kgalema has a dignified seriousness to him. In mass meetings he would probably not be as spontaneous with ululations as Zuma."
I think President Zuma's private life is not likely to help him to cling to power for another second term of South Africa either. Zuma has faced significant legal challenges. He was charged with rape in 2005, but was acquitted on that. In addition, he fought a long legal battle over allegations of racketeering and corruption resulting from his financial advisor Schabir Shaik's conviction for corruption and fraud. President Zuma either on the local scene or internationally has never performed or been outstanding in the moult of Thabo Mbeki or even Robert Mugabe.
What we need now is somebody who can re-mention a new South Africa and by implications a new southern Africa because South Africa is the apparent power house of the region. But let us be real on certain issues. The ANC has never professed to be a socialist party so how do we except Zuma to suddenly turn South Africa in a progressive society and economy like in the moult of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela?