I am not South African, but it is a country very close to my heart and one which I always watch with interest. This week saw #ZumaMustFall day. A series of marches in cities across the country calling for the immediate recall or resignation of President Jacob Zuma. It was sparked by the remarkable decision by the President to go through not one, not two, but three Finance Ministers within the space of a week, which in turn sent the country’s currency, the Rand, in to a temporary freefall. Although it has stabilised slightly since.
This is not the first time that Jacob Zuma has faced calls to resign from protesters on the streets. The recent #FeesMustFall social media campaign also saw protesters take to the streets, that time about the prohibitive cost of tertiary education in South Africa. Then there has been the long running saga of the property in his hometown of Nkandla, which has seemingly been paid for using public funds. Combine this with the economic downturn affecting the country, which has seen it lose its place as Africa’s largest economy for the first time, as well the poor state of public services, rampant unemployment, and a crime rate that remains stubbornly high, and it is staggering to those not familiar with South African politics that he has survived this long. This is leaving out some of his personal uhum…. statements, regarding the HIV menace that riddles the country he leads.
Through all of this the President has never been put in any kind of real political danger though. Partly this is due to the unique makeup of South African politics, which sees an almost religious devotion to his party, the ANC, the anti-apartheid freedom movement turned party of Government, which Nelson Mandela led to victory in the country’s first ever free elections in 1994. Part of it is also down to Zuma himself though. He is a political survivor who specialises in the type of dividing rhetoric that ensures that he presents himself as a son of the freedom movement, and that is ultimately all that matters. This has helped him weather all the previous storms that have come his way.
This time feels ever so slightly different though.
Nobody with any sense thinks that the marches will actually lead to the President going, but it does show a shift change. Namely the involvement of two key groups. One, the educated and reasonably affluent black middle class, and two, whites. On the second of these groups, there has been criticism by the President’s supporters that this is primarily about white people wanting to get rid of the first President who has actually threatened their privileged position, and one look at the pictures from the marches does definitely show a heavy Caucasian makeup-especially in Cape Town. But this is to miss the point. Until very recently the only whites who would be seen publicly voicing their despair and anger at the current Government would have been either highly political people activists, or right wing fringe characters harping for the return of white rule. What was different about yesterday is that normal, sensible and, until now politically unengaged, young white people were marching through the streets demanding the President go. That this generation of white South Africans feel confident enough in their place in South African society to so clearly and publicly state their views and criticisms is, in itself, a sign of progress in the country. Their parents-the generation that went through the transition from apartheid to democracy- would almost certainly been too afraid to show any signs of not being happy with the new national project for fear of being labelled as racists who are living in the past.
The other key group, and one that ultimately has the potential of doing more damage to Zuma, is the educated black middle class. For these young people they see their country being left behind in the global race for progress as a result of a corrupt and incompetent Government, which is now actually costing them money and opportunity.
If you look at the democratic toppling of leaders throughout history, they have almost all come about for the same reason. And that is that they have cost the middle class money, or put another way, that the middle class didn’t trust them with their money. In the UK it was not, despite all the fuss, Labour’s foreign policy that cost the party, it was the feeling that middle income families did not trust them with their mortgages, savings and pensions anymore. Conversely the same can actually save an administration. Bill Clinton survived the relentless attempts by his Republican opponents to impeach and defeat him, because of, as he said ‘the economy, stupid’. As long as people’s money was safe, they could look the other way at everything else. Thatcher achieved the same magic trick, until the magic ran out.
The same is true in South Africa. Even the great Nelson Mandela, rightly deified in the country, had enough political nous to understand that he couldn’t alienate those who are responsible for bringing money in to the Government’s coffers. Hence the middle of the road economic policies of his time in office. His successor, Thabo Mbeki had the same understanding, although lacked the personal charisma to carry it off to the same extent, and was often criticised for the fact that his Government left too many of the people they were supposed to help, out of the new South African dream. That criticism was not entirely unfair, but it was not what ultimately ended up costing him.
Zuma on the other hand, has followed a different path. A more radical and redistributive political and economic plan based, apparently, on redressing past wrongs. Oddly, that would have probably worked better for him in the 90s, when any redistributive policies would have only punished a white minority that was already on the naughty step and in no position to push back. But South Africa in 2015 is very different, and the people who are now being having their pockets hit by his plans are black as well as white. And they don’t like it, not one bit. On their list of priorities, bringing up past injustices is fairly low down, especially when compared to the success of their business and the economic security of their families.
President Zuma has underestimated these people. He wagered that they will put up with taking the brunt of his policies and forgive his personal shortcomings, as long as it meant correcting the past. In that wager, South Africa’s political gambler has been beaten by the house. He will survive this week’s events, but one can’t help feel that this is the start of something not the end.