Jacob Zuma: Assessing His First Three Years

By Guha, Keshava D. | Harvard International Review, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Jacob Zuma: Assessing His First Three Years


Guha, Keshava D., Harvard International Review


In December 2012, the African National Congress (ANC) will decide whether to re-appoint its president, Jacob Zuma. Since the Republic of South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994, the ANC President has, ex officio, been the president of the country; such is the party's electoral dominance, a dominance that withstands the system of proportional representation, which discourages political majorities. It would be extraordinary to see Zuma fail to be re-appointed; but would this be deserved? This article will examine Zuma's record in his first three years as president.

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Four years ago, when Zuma was first chosen as the ANC's next president, it was easily the most controversial political moment in the history of the new South Africa. While the international press focused on his personal life--he is an avowed polygamist, and has been charged with rape--the more potent concerns about Zuma came from the South African and international business community. Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, Zuma's predecessors, successfully balanced the demands from their party's left-wing for radical social change with the needs of business, earning South Africa a reputation as Africa's economic powerhouse. Yet despite steady growth and disciplined fiscal policies, Zuma inherited an economy with an unemployment rate of 25 percent, inequality, high levels of crime, and low levels of education. As Zuma had consistently voiced populist and socialist rhetoric before assuming office, many feared he would take the South African economy in a radically different direction.

Three years later, it is clear that the initial fears about Jacob Zuma as an economic radical were unfounded. Whatever his prior views, as president, he has essentially been a pragmatist. In response to criticism from the left, Mbeki had largely abandoned the privatization campaign of his first term, and Zuma has not resumed it. But at the same time, there has been none of the sort of nationalization of private corporations that many business leaders feared Zuma might initiate. His finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, and his head of planning, Trevor Manuel (Finance minister from 1996-2009), have ensured fiscal prudence, with budget deficits contained to less than 5 percent of GDP. This has granted South Africa considerable credibility in capital markets, allowing it to borrow at rates that are favorable compared to those offered to other countries of a similar profile.

While largely, this represents continuity from previous administrations, Zuma does deserve credit for South Africa's disciplined economic policies. The perception that Thabo Mbeki was excessively pro-business was a major factor in bringing down his reign in 2008, and Zuma has continually faced pressure from the ANC left. This last year, he had a showdown with Julius Malema, erstwhile president of the ANC youth wing and Zuma's own protege, which showcased the president's commitment to his economic course and served to burnish his credibility. Malema, the ANC's most visibly radical voice--he is an unstinting supporter of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, and has called for the wholesale expropriation of assets owned by South Africa's whites--had proposed the nationalization of South Africa's mining industry, arguing that this immensely successful industry only benefits a tiny white elite. Zuma immediately sought to reassure mining companies that under no circumstances would this be carried out, and acted decisively and ruthlessly to suspend Malema from the party for serial indiscipline.

Zuma's conduct in the Malema affair has served to establish him as a leader who is willing to take serious political risks to ensure stability. But the success Malema has enjoyed is representative of the profound economic and social problems that continue to plague South Africa, problems into which Zuma's government has made only limited inroads. …

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