Jacob Zuma: after the 'Battle of Polokwane'

As the ANC elects a new leader, South Africans will have to learn the language of Jacob Zuma -and brace themselves for a bumpy ride

The recently concluded African National Congress [ANC] presidential elections at Polokwane , which resulted in victory for Jacob Zuma, were a political earthquake in South Africa. The election result has mainstreamed the working class and rural and urban poor – all of whom have felt marginalised under Mbeki’s government. The result of the 'battle of Polokwane' may also be the mainstreaming of Afro – traditionalism in South African politics.

The Polokwane congress revealed the deep divisions not only within the Party, but also within South Africa itself. His most acerbic critics have viewed Zuma’s ascension and likely future impact on the nation in apocalyptic terms; they worry that Zuma’s inauguration as party leader and, possibly, as national President in 2009, will presage the beginning of the end for South Africa’s as the “rainbow nation” and as Africa’s foremost democratic economy. There are deep reservations about the moral baggage which he carries, and naysayers assume that a Zuma administration, whether at party or governmental level, will unleash the forces of an atavistic 'primitivism' which, if carried to extremes, could result in South Africa becoming a weak or even a failed state.

Zuma’s supporters on the other hand, maintain that Zuma has been given a raw deal by the media; that he was acquitted on the rape charges he faced; that he is the target of a race and class –based witch-hunt; and that he is the 'people’s champion' who will empower the poor in South Africa. For them, Zuma’s greatest asset is that he listens to the grassroots. With President Mbeki due to step down in 2009, and national elections due the same year, there is little doubt that the next two years will be the most intense period of soul searching for South Africans, since the inaugural multiparty elections of 1994 which brought the ANC to power.

Polokwane : a Zuma Clean Sweep

The ANC summit at Polokwane was momentous for a variety of reasons. First, it was the most open and bitterly contested ANC leadership contest in decades. In the end, the surprise was not that Zuma won – he had been gathering momentum since his acquittal for rape – but that Mbeki was able to get 40% of the vote. [Zuma received 60%]. The figures will offer cold comfort to Mbeki, because not only did Zuma win the presidency, but his candidates also made a clean sweep of the top five party positions [Deputy President; national chairperson; secretary general; deputy secretary – general; and treasurer – general]. This means that Zuma will have significant power over the ANC party administration, but will have to negotiate with internal rivals to implement policy. However, Mbeki, although much weakened, will still be able to exert significant influence within the ANC in the run – up to 2009

The way in which the Congress and elections were conducted is also significant. Prior to the event, there had been fears of intra – party violence on a scale to rival the worst days of the endemic political violence of the 1980’s. Although the debates were raucous and intimidatory at times, there was minimal violence; disagreements over whether votes should be counted manually or electronically, were also peacefully resolved. The Polokwane Congress, has demonstrated that the ANC has the will and the competence to run a genuinely democratic party election. Zuma may not be the candidate that everyone wished for, but he is the most popular candidate among the majority of ANC voters. Had the elections dissolved in a welter of violence, fraud and acrimony, then this could have set a fatal precedent for the future of electoral politics in South Africa. There is also an important symbolism to the elections; the Congress opened with the rival groups of supporters taunting and threatening each other; the gathering closed with Zuma embracing his defeated opponent.

Perhaps most importantly in the long term, whilst the Polokwane congress certainly revealed the deep divides within the ANC, they have also re – energised the Party by bringing a host of fresh voices to the political stage. Polokwane has brokered a generational, ideological and gender power- shift within the ANC. Of particular interest is the rise of the ANC Youth League and Women’s League as major players within the party – and state. It was the Youth League which played a major role in preventing violence at Polokwane, and Youth leader Fikile Mbalula has insisted that President Mbeki must complete his term of office in 2009, and that the League will ensure that there is an orderly transition between Mbeki and Zuma.

Healing the wounds

Jacob Zuma faces numerous challenges, both personal and party – political, in his quest to become South Africa’s president. In a nutshell, he has to convince sceptics that he has the moral and political authority and vision to guide the South African renaissance. The detritus of Zuma’s trial for rape, and the ongoing investigation for corruption, have led to concerns about whether he is fit for office, and whether he would set the seal on a “worst practice” style of government which could fatally undermine South Africa’s political system. There is also the worry that even if he is cleared on all counts, his credibility has been so undermined that would be unable to positively influence the internal and national governance style of the ANC . There are also questions about whether he will be able to heal the deep ideological divisions within the ANC; the divisions between the ANC and other groups; and whether he will be able to forge a common platform with Thabo Mbeki in time for the 2009 elections.

However, there are also grounds for cautious optimism. First, both Mbeki and Zuma will have to put aside their differences and work together to create a coherent programme for the 2009 elections. Although his victory at Polokwane is seen as the prelude to an unstoppable ascension to the national Presidency in 2009, there is no guarantee that Zuma will be South Africa’s next leader. If the ANC is perceived as divided and politically vacuous in 2009, this will provide the space for rival groups to coalesce and provide credible alternative leadership. Zuma and Mbeki will have to meld the former’s populist, pro working – class agenda with the latter’s black business empowerment programme – although the personal differences between the state and party President are well known, they do not have the luxury of infighting, and they will have to create an political ensemble by 2009.

Second, whilst many fear that Zuma will be a highly autocratic leader, there is little likelihood of a dictatorship. The ANC was, and remains, a highly collectivist organisation , where both the grassroots and the party grandees exert real power. Indeed , the Polokwane elections were a reminder to the increasingly elitist ANC leadership, that the real powerbase of the ANC is the urban and rural working class and poor. Party leaders ignore grass – roots opinion at their peril. In addition, at the higher echelons of the party, the tradition is of decision- making through consensus. This is the other message which the ANC leadership will have to imbibe – namely that they have to re –establish the consensual approach to policy making. Ironically it may well be that the questions of morality which encumber Zuma, instead of undermining his credibility, will force him to be a more pragmatic consensus builder than Mbeki. He will face more checks and balances, than his predecessor, precisely because of his known vagaries.

Third, Zuma is renowned as a unifier. Although his image is that of a rabble – rousing populist, his real skill is that of a formidable and pragmatic negotiator. He played a significant role in the negotiations between the ANC and the National Party which led to the 1994 elections. He has also brokered internal ANC discussions to heal the rifts between the various ideological groups within the party, and particularly between the trade unions and the ANC political centre. Also of significance is the fact that he has not played the ethnic card. Whilst there is little doubt that he has considerable support from the Zulu heartland, he has never portrayed himself as a Zulu nationalist. The ANC’s history is one of surmounting rather than exploiting South Africa’s racial and ethnic fault-lines, and it is likely that this tradition will continue.

2009 and Beyond

If Zuma wins the 2009 elections, he will face many challenges, including South Africa’s increasing levels of violent crime, and a demoralised and under – resourced Police force. Systemic corruption is also a major concern. He will also face a crisis of expectations from the urban unemployed, the poor, and the working class to whom he promised a share of the pie. They, too, have their eyes on the prize, and he – and the Party – will have to deliver on their blandishments, whilst simultaneously retaining the confidence of the business community and spurring economic growth. Under Mbeki, South Africa has enjoyed an economic boom, and years of state financial surplus. This treasure chest is an undoubted advantage for the party, but there will certainly be contentious debates over the competing priorities within the national budget.

Zuma will also have to endure the ongoing investigation for corruption. This investigation will now be perceived as a litmus test for Zuma, the ANC and South Africa itself. There is a possibility that pressure will be brought on Mokotedi Mpshe, head of the National Prosecuting Authority, to either end the investigation on Zuma, or to whitewash the result. But there is also the moral pressure to ensure that there is a genuine investigation. Bringing premature closure to the corruption saga would be as controversial, but a result which sees the ANC president, and 2009 President – elect, indicted for corruption, would almost certainly stoke the flames of political violence. This is the clear and present danger facing Zuma and the Party, and they have to have a strategy in place to deal with a possible indictment.

A long term issue is the question of race and tradition; Zuma’s greatest support has come from the black working class, and he is also perceived as a African traditionalist. Whilst Zuma has not espoused a black power/fundamentalist agenda [ in fact, it is Mbeki who has promoted a more hard – line black power agenda], it is possible that Zuma’s supporters could tilt him towards a more hard – line race agenda. There is no doubt that racial exploitation still endures among the working class, but the ANC has to manoeuvre carefully to dismantle the legacy of racism still extant amongst the working class, without destroying the multiracial ethos on which it was founded. The race issue has become increasingly divisive in South African politics and society, and Zuma and Mbeki will have to ensure that race and ethnicity do not become the cancer which destroys the socio- cultural fabric of the nation.

Zuma is also likely to face challenges by women’s rights groups, HIV/AIDS activists, “family values” groups and others, who insist that his rape and corruption charges show that he is a man with little respect for human and women’s rights or the law, and is thus not fit for purpose. Zuma’s election has revealed a clear division amongst the women of South Africa; for all the furore against him by women’s rights campaigners, his most ardent supporters at Polokwane were the ANC women’s League. At heart, the issue is not really about Zuma at all; it is about the unresolved tensions and ambiguities in South African life, between African traditionalism and Eurocentric modernity. With Zuma as the new ANC leader, this socio – cultural conundrum has come to the forefront of the political landscape.

Foreign Policy

Although it may be presumptious to speak of a 'Mbeki Doctrine', it can be argued that Thabo Mbeki’s foreign policy has consistently been based on the premise that South Africa must acknowledge , and be acknowledged, as a benign great power. This entails recognition of South Africa as prima inter pares within the SADC region; recognition of South Africa as an African superpower; and recognition, at world level [ and particularly within the UN] of South Africa’s rank as a great power. Mbeki has dispensed with the ambiguity and reluctance to lead in international diplomacy which characterised the Mandela years. Although South Africa’s ambivalence at the time was understandable, given destructive foreign policies of the pre 1994 apartheid state, the South Africans have become increasingly assertive and confident in foreign affairs. Zuma, whose greatest strength and most pressing priorities will surely be in the domestic sphere, is unlikely to radically shift from the Mbeki Doctrine in foreign affairs. With regard to Zimbabwe, for instance, although he will not have as close a relationship with Robert Mugabe as Mbeki has, Zuma is likely to continue with Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy [ although, behind the scenes, he may ratchet up the pressure on Harare a notch or two]. South Africa’s drive for economic partnerships and spheres of influence throughout Africa and the globe will continue; and with it, her global gravitas.


The Polokwane congress and the fall and rise of Jacob Zuma, illustrate the extraordinary vibrancy of the African National Congress, and demonstrate that South Africa, for all its flaws, still remains one of Africa’s most dynamic democracies. Polokwane also shows the extent to which the ANC dominates the political landscape in South Africa. Whether this will remain the case in 2009 and beyond, will depend on whether Thabi Mbeki and Jacob Zuma can work together for the good, not just of the ANC, but also of the country. If Zuma and the ANC can remake their “covenant with the people”, and articulate a coherent national narrative for South Africa, then he will become South Africa’s next President. With national elections due in 2009, and the football World Cup being hosted in South Africa in 2010, South Africans , and the rest of the world ,will have to learn the language of Jacob Zuma -and brace themselves for a bumpy ride.

Knox Chitiyo

Head, Africa Programme, RUSI


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