Zuma is just the face of South Africa’s democratic malaise

Surly: Zuma’s presidency has been marked by scandal and mismanagement. WEF

South Africa is mourning the death of Nelson Mandela, a founding father like no other. His legacy includes a still-lauded constitution, four peaceful, free and fair democratic elections (five if 2014 follows suit), many years of moderately healthy economic growth, a free media, an active civil society, and the elevation of large swathes of the population out of extreme poverty.

Yet today, there is the sense that South Africans are also mourning the death of something else besides Madiba. It is as if his dream is dying with him – and the current political leadership is seemingly unable or unwilling to do much about it.

The jeers and boos at South Africa’s national football stadium when Jacob Zuma’s image appeared on the screen spoke volumes. His scandal-ridden tenure stands in stark contrast to Mandela’s years of commitment to the cause of real freedom for all – and it is not hyperbolic to suggest that the Zuma government may mark the beginning of the end for true freedom in South Africa.

A catastrophic presidency

Zuma and the ANC have had a torrid time of late, thanks largely to the ongoing “Nkandlagate” scandal. This is a furore over the supposed “security upgrading” of president Zuma’s private residence at Nkandla, which consumed a grotesque sum of public money. A recent leaked report by the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, proved that R215 million (US$20 million) of public money was spent on Zuma’s private home, including state payment for an amphitheatre, a swimming pool, a visitor’s centre, a cattle kraal and a chicken coop.

As is often the case with Zuma, South Africans have heard nothing on the subject from their president – but in this case, for once, it seems that some prominent members of the ANC are finally starting to question the leadership in public. They have requested the release of the Nkandla report to the public, and particularly outspoken members of the ruling elite have demanded to know whether Zuma himself requested this massive misuse of public finances.

Only time will tell whether the party elite have really had enough of dealing with Zuma, or whether they will simply find a more junior fall-guy for this embarrassing episode; after all, the culture of the ANC has always been to put the interests of the organisation before those of any single individual. But Zuma has tested this culture to the limit.

“Nkandlagate” is only one of a number of scandals and crises since his infamous rape trial. Among the others are “Guptagate”, the use of the country’s most secure military airport to land a jet filled with guests attending a private wedding, and the killing by police of 34 striking miners in Marikana, an event that shocked the world and every South African with its echoes of the infamous 1960 Sharpeville massacre. There are weekly, often violent street protests over corruption and the very poor delivery of local public services; meanwhile, the ANC pushed through the “e-tolling” of highways in Gauteng, despite years of public protest. The country has faced two downgrades to its creditworthiness and a severe dip in economic growth, with little prospect of a turnaround in the near future. And more chronically, South African levels of poverty, inequality, unemployment, education and general quality of life remain appalling for a middle-income country.

Standards of living remain very low for many South Africans. Medpro

Not all these problems are of Zuma’s making, but they have all shown up his startling inability to lead the country. In contrast to Mandela, he is reactionary, not visionary; he principally acts to preserve his interests or those of the ANC. A party man through and through, the general public sees very little of him, even in times of crisis. Preoccupied with protecting his support within the party, he seems to miss the obvious political need to spell out and defend a vision to keep the ordinary South African on board.

But Zuma’s lack of vision and poor judgement is only one component of a broader political and economic malaise, one that severely restricts the freedom of all South Africans.

Beyond Zuma

South Africa has failed to bring in forms of representation that will secure its people’s freedom. The skewed existing forms of economic and political representation ultimately reproduce the power and interests of elites, and simply cannot generate economic opportunity and political power for all.

South Africa’s electoral system implements the idea of proportional representation so literally it undermines meaningful representation. The system is designed such that voters vote for closed party lists, and not directly for representatives; they thus have no means of directly removing a particular representative, even as part of a regular election. This robs ordinary citizens of any political agency, and means that representatives are principally beholden to their parties and not their consituents.

That Zuma himself is so focused on internal party drama reflects a fallacy about governing that has long underpinned ANC politics. As a campaigning party the ANC can legitimately claim to represent a majority of the citizenry – but as a ruling party, it must represent both the state and the people as a whole. Yet the ANC confuses its role as a political party competing for power with its governing role representing South Africans – a recipe for tyranny and despotic government, and one of the most critical problems of the Zuma era.

Ultimately, whether or not South Africa continues its long walk to freedom depends on its leaders successfully effecting a number of changes. Sovereignty must be returned to parliament. Wealth and power must be substantially redistributed. Real and meaningful competition for political office must be encouraged, with a new and more effective electoral system. A new macroeconomic policy must be instigated to meet people’s critical everyday needs. Above all, the ruling class must recruit competent, courageous, responsible and persuasive leaders and bureaucrats – and there must be a major restructuring of the ruling alliance.

Under Zuma, there is little or no chance of realising these changes, since his capacity for venal political leadership seems to know no bounds. As the booing stadium crowd recognised yesterday, he displays none of Mandela’s positive traits – determination, vision, judgement, oratorical flair, and the exclusive use of the public purse for public interests. If Zuma stays in power in 2014, there will be scant hope for real freedom in South Africa.

The president’s time has come, as the crowd made clear yesterday. But whether the ordinary South African citizen will have a say in the matter depends not on the formal elections of 2014 (for they offer little meaningful formal choice and competition) but on whether the ANC recalls its disgraced leader.