With the World Cup nearing, 2010 will be South Africa’s year. The self-proclaimed Rainbow Nation will receive a rainbow crowd of visitors, the largest and most diverse group of tourists in its history. The spotlight on the country’s progress since apartheid will be more intense than ever.
The World Cup host, President Jacob Zuma, will bring Britain his message of success with a state visit in March. Eight months in office, he has surprised his critics. He is more accessible to ordinary South Africans than his aloof predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. He is more willing to listen to colleagues than Nelson Mandela who, according to former ministers, could be brutal in cabinet, shutting speakers up by saying he had already taken his decision.
Mr. Zuma accepts advice, including on matters where his past behaviour suggests he has different instincts. His recent speech calling for increased HIV/AIDS awareness and a new funding for anti-retroviral drugs was a sharp correction to Mbeki’s denialist line. But can Zuma make a difference on South Africa’s social and economic problems?
Mr. Mandela and Mr. Mbeki presided over the longest economic boom in the country’s history. Mr. Zuma was unlucky to come to power just after the onset of the global economic crisis. Growth in 2010 is projected to fall by 2.6 per cent at a time when western economies are already reviving.
Mr. Zuma was also unlucky to arrive in Pretoria’s Union Buildings, the seat of government, at “payback time.” While the end of apartheid removed a vicious system of political inequality, the post-apartheid years have produced a widening of income disparities, leaving South Africa more unequal than its neighbours, Zambia and Zimbabwe. At 25 per cent of the labour force, unemployment is massive. As the riots in several townships demonstrated a few months ago, black South Africans are increasingly angry.
They have good cause. Private poverty and public lack of resources are visible everywhere. Visiting a school in a township not far from Johannesburg, we found that dozens of pupils have to walk over two hours from the shacks where they live each day. Class sizes average 50, and the cramped school has no assembly hall or gym. At least the pupils get a meal, and food parcels to tide them over the Christmas holiday, but even this vital help is not financed by the government. It comes from private donors.
The good news is that jobless people’s rage is no longer directed at immigrants. The xenophobic attacks on workers from Zimbabwe and other African countries in May 2008 have not been repeated. Instead of scapegoating the innocent, poor people are aiming their criticism at officials of the ruling party, the African National Congress, and demanding delivery of long-promised improvements. The bad news is that the government and the media seem unwilling to engage in serious debate, let alone action, on how to supply people with what they need.
South Africa’s press and blog sites are dominated by rightwing thinking. They regularly headline claims that the government is “lurching to the left” and that the Communist party and trade union allies are getting the upper hand. But Cosatu (the Congress of South African Trade Unions) and two other union federations supported the recent medium-term budget statement of the finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, even though he followed the ANC government’s neoliberal trickle-down line of relying on foreign investment and exports to produce growth. He announced some grants for small businesses to retain workers rather than lay them off, but no large-scale public works or any serious redistribution of wealth through the tax system. South Africa’s simplistic economic debate does not even recognise Keynesianism as a legitimate alternative to the failed ANC strategy of the last decade and a half.
Bad too is the anti-intellectual tone of much of the ANC’s discourse. When Kader Asmal — one of the movement’s stalwarts and a former education minister - criticised plans to rename South Africa’s police a “force” rather than a “service,” Fikile Mbalula, the deputy police minister, exploded, saying Asmal’s “vitriolic, coarse and vulgar antics smack of duplicity, deceit and double standards.” Mr. Mbalula is a close friend of the loud-mouthed Julius Malema, the head of the ANC’s youth league whom Mr. Zuma recently endorsed as a future leader of South Africa. Mr. Mbalula supports new instructions given to the police to kill suspects thought to be carrying arms (“Yes, shoot the …,” he wrote in a recent column).
Ironically, just as during apartheid South Africa’s courts occasionally thwarted the state, they have become a key motor for reform today. The country’s path-breaking constitution enshrines numerous social rights, including the “right to have access to adequate housing”; and in their search for better service delivery people are turning to judges rather than politicians. They recently won a major victory when the constitutional court struck down the KwaZulu-Natal Slums Act, which had allowed municipalities not only to evict squatters from public land but to force private landlords to kick their squatters out too. Shackdwellers (who consist of as many as 10 per cent of South Africa’s population) are increasingly organising themselves, independently of the ANC, the Communist party and the trade unions. They also see little hope in the Congress of the People, which broke from the ANC a year ago. It got 7% in last April’s elections, but thanks to internal squabbles and resignations has crashed to 2%.
With their new government-licensed permission to turn easily to violence, the police seem to have condoned, and perhaps instigated, an appalling machete attack in Durban against Abahlali base Mjondolo, the biggest of the new shackdwellers’ movements. The attack left two people dead and the shackdwellers’ leader in hiding, but Mr. Zuma’s government refuses to establish an inquiry. South Africa has made huge strides since its first democratic government in 1994. But slippage is accelerating and Zuma needs to reverse it soon. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009