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SOUTH AFRICA: Election Will Not Bring an End to Political Turmoil

CAPE TOWN, Apr 23 2009 (IPS) - South Africa’s fourth democratic election will not bring an end the political turmoil that has beset the country since 2007 when former president Thabo Mbeki suspended the country’s head of public prosecutions and was replaced by Jacob Zuma as leader of the ruling ANC.

The primary reason is that the grouping under Zuma consists of divergent factions, ideologies and interests that enable it to appeal to a broad mass of South Africans, cutting across class, race and gender divisions.

Shared ideology is not what keeps the group together. Rather, opposition to Mbeki is one of the main ingredients of the glue holding the group which will ascend to political high office after the Apr. 22 election.

The second unifying ingredient has been the political drive against the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the courts to get criminal charges of corruption against Zuma dropped before he became the next president of South Africa. He faced 783 charges in connection with the country’s fraught multibillion dollar arms deal.

The charges were dropped two weeks ago after considerable political pressure by the Zuma camp. The third ingredient has been the group’s campaign to win the election decisively.

The Zuma camp has been dubbed “the coalition of the wounded” as it includes all those ANC leaders who have felt slighted by Mbeki. The latter had succeeded Nelson Mandela as South African president in 1999.

But far from being homogenous, the Zuma camp exhibits a motley mixture of ideologies.

Paradoxically, these differences have aided the Zuma-ites to garner wide ranging popular support within the ANC, establishing an alliance of interests that mobilised the majority of ANC delegates at the ANC national conference in 2007 to oust Mbeki.

This same mix of interests has ensured that the party could appeal to a much broader mass of voters than any other party in this year’s election.

Rather than merely attracting votes on the basis of race, as some pundits in South Africa suggest, the Zuma camp’s mishmash of political identities is what has made the party able to attract the vast majority of votes – starting with Zuma, who has played up his ethnic identity considerably since his trial on charges of rape in 2006 where he chose to address the court in his mother tongue (Zulu) and peppered his testimony with “cultural” references.

How this fits with his leftwing allies in the South African Communist Party (SACP) is unclear. The SACP has historically been the ANC’s non-racial conscience, given that Communist leaders have throughout the decades of the two organisations’ collaboration frequently been white. This has partly lent non-racialism the prominence that it enjoys as one of the main pillars of ANC ideology.

Zuma’s ethnic chauvinism has been accompanied by the projection of a strongly patriarchal gender and sexual identity.

He justified having unprotected sex with the HIV-positive, lesbian daughter of a friend by alleging that Zulu culture demands of men to perform sexual duties when so “required” by women. Zuma celebrated his victory after being acquitted on the rape charge by marrying another woman, thereby flaunting his polygamy and a positioning of women as trophies.

His supporters have promoted the confluence of ethnic chauvinism and “culturally” justified patriarchy with T-shirts featuring his face with the caption “100% Zulu boy”.

Zuma has also made a concerted effort to reach out to other patriarchal traditionalists in South African society, both black and white. He held meetings with the remnants of the former ruling party of apartheid, the National Party, and its civil society surrogates.

His assurances to ethnically minded Afrikaners that they were the only “true” white Africans – as opposed to English-speaking whites – caused an outcry. He regularly interacts with traditional African chiefs in the rural areas and emphasises his own rural connections by regularly publicising “cultural” events at his homestead at Nkandla in traditionalist Zulu territory.

Zuma also spent a fair share of ANC electioneering time addressing conservative churches – for example, one which allows polygamy and where women and men sit separately during services and women are required to dress “modestly”.

A member of the Zuma camp, Dr. Mathole Motshekga, indicated in the past week that the laws that legalised abortion and same-sex marriage may be reconsidered because they were adopted when Zuma “was not president”. Add to this Zuma’s declaration shortly after his rape trial that he would not let a gay man stand ‘‘in front of” him, meaning he would beat him.

Indications are that reactionary elements in the South African Council of Churches are poised to test the extent of Zuma’s sexist and homophobic inclinations, particularly with reference to the laws on same-sex marriage and abortion.

Whether they will be successful is still to be seen as his populism makes him unpredictable. For example, after the homophobic statement he buckled before pressure from the ANC Youth League to publicly withdraw it.

While the women’s rights lobby in the ANC has waxed and waned through the years, non-sexism is one of the three pillars of ANC ideology. It seems that the ANC Women’s League may be pacified with a ministry for ‘‘women’s affairs” after the Apr 22 election but whether this will satisfy all feminists inside and outside the Zuma camp in the medium term is debatable.

The ANC’s liberal democratic supporters seem to find some solace in the presence of businessperson Cyril Ramaphosa in the Zuma camp. He presided over the post-1994 Constitutional Assembly that drafted South Africa’s Constitution, a document lauded internationally for the extent of its protection of human rights, including socio-economic rights.

How does his position as drafter of the country’s founding social contract, which includes liberal principles such as the rule of law, accord with the Zuma group’s attacks on the constitutional independence of institutions?

The campaign to get the charges against Zuma withdrawn has considerably weakened the NPA (its head fired and the unit that investigated Zuma closed down).

The campaign also extended to the courts and, on other matters, to the South African Human Rights Commission. Ramaphosa is rumoured to have presidential ambitions where, some hope, he will reassert constitutional principles and reinstate the independence of institutions such as the battered NPA.

On economic policy, the Zuma camp’s broad popular appeal can be attributed to the ideologically incoherent combination of neoliberal capitalists, communists and social democrats. These contradictions were not resolved when the Congress of the People (Cope), which represents economically conservative and socially progressive interests, split off from the ANC last year.

While the neoliberals are concentrated in the ANC Youth League, which has extended business interests, the Zuma camp has strongly depended on the ANC’s two alliance partners, the SACP and the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (Cosatu), for its leftwing appeal.

The trade union federation represents the organisational muscle of the party and has been indispensible in the ANC’s campaigning for the Apr 22 election. While the SACP has specific policies aimed at addressing rural poverty, Cosatu represents workerist, urban interests – quite removed from Zuma’s own traditionalist, rural base.

The SACP supports a ‘‘socialist future” for South Africa and Cosatu’s policy proposals have a strong Keynesian capitalist slant. Cosatu supports an interventionist state which is anathema to the neoliberal capitalist position of the ANC Youth League.

How Zuma will be able to contain these contradictory tendencies, accompanied by intense jockeying for positions of power and patronage in the post-election administration, remains to be seen. Whichever way, the rough ride is not over for South Africa’s democracy.

*Van der Westhuizen is an author, journalist and political commentator living in Cape Town, South Africa

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