President Jacob Zuma is basking in a second honeymoon. To the much-married polygamist, such hedonism will be nothing unusual, but to Zuma the politician – widely excoriated for his failings – it brings welcome relief.

For it is the political commentators and analysts, not his line-up of winsome women, who are metaphorically cradling the president’s head in their laps. Following Zuma’s emphatic victory at Mangaung, where he trounced Kgalema Motlanthe, the Anyone But Zuma camp candidate for the presidency of the African National Congress, the prez is suddenly getting some good press. In some part this is no doubt influenced by the elevation of the highly respected Cyril Ramaphosa to his side.

The thinking goes something along the lines that Zuma has consolidated his power base and that last year’s disasters – especially the Marikana massacre, Nkandlagate, and the loss of international investor confidence – will enable the president to focus on national rather than party and personal matters. After all, Zuma has routed youth leader Julius Malema and his storm troopers for nationalisation, as well as decapitating the so-called Forces of Change, who had been determined that he would not lead the ANC into the 2014 election.

So within the ANC, nationalisation is suddenly a verboten word, tenderpreneurship is labelled an insidious evil, and the National Development Plan is the newest official blueprint. As a consequence, University of Cape Town politics professor Anthony Butler writes in Business Day that “Zuma’s second term might transcend his personal limitations”.

Steven Friedman, director of the Centre of the Study of Democracy, similarly believes that “circumstances have conspired to make this a year of potential” with a shift from internal ANC wrangling to a “watershed” emphasis on dialogue and building a social compact. He makes the point, often lost in the public clamour over Zuma’s personal failings, that South Africa’s present plight cannot, in any case, be fixed by a single individual.

Unexpected support for all this optimistic prognosticating came from the hard-nosed SA Institute of Race Relations'(SAIRR) Unit for Risk Analysis. It notes this week that “at no point since 1994 has the institute confronted more angst and pessimism about the future of the country”. Yet “in many respects we are more optimistic … than at any point in the past decade”.

The institute identifies two supposedly equally probable alternatives, labelled with the corny titles so favoured by scenario planners. There is a Long Dark Night (a continuation of failed ANC interventionist policies) or else the New Dawn (ANC reformists drive through “initially unpopular” NDP-style changes that in the long term assure the ANC’s future in power).

What is interesting is not so much the scenarios themselves, moulded as they are by the institute’s fervid commitment to unfettered markets, but the astute background analysis of the predicament. The fundamental problem, the institute argues, “is that government has done a great deal to increase the living standards of poor people but has no means, whether through education or labour market access, to allow those same people to continue climbing the living standards ladder”.

SAIRR takes comfort from “many” leaders in government, media and civil society now “admitting to this fact” and claims “much hard evidence” in favour of the upbeat scenario, citing especially a new government openness to compromise. “When that starts to happen it is only a matter of time before the government starts to compromise on more and more in an effort to retain stability,” writes Frans Cronje, deputy CEO of the institute.

All these shoots of optimism should warm Zuma’s heart. The institute concedes, however, that its own optimism hasn’t been shared by any of the corporate boards or the public to which it has presented its scenarios. So the honeymoon may be short lived. Fortunately for Zuma, this is something he is well accustomed to.


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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