Zooming In On Zuma: Socialist or Populist?

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Alexactus T. Kaure

“Jacob Zuma’s rise to the top in the African National Congress (ANC) could spell a slight shift to the socialist and leftist leanings in that party…” That was the conclusion by two Namibian academics (Graham Hopwood and Joseph Diescho) recently.

Predicting African politics can be a hazardous, if not a dangerous, undertaking. I am sure the two academics were at best thinking wishfully. I have a different take on this one.

Let us start with the basics – with Zuma himself before we get into the broader configuration of South African and perhaps, for comparative purposes, also African politics. We must understand that at no point, even when he was the Vice President either of the ANC or of the government, did Zuma espouse or profess any socialist values.

Thus, that he might now suddenly become one is a dreaming of grand magnitude. Even Mbeki could have done better than Zuma on this score.

However, he did not. Why?

Precisely because all these people are following in the footsteps of a party that has never pretended to be socialist in the first place.

The ANC, one of Africa’s oldest liberation movements, has always been a populist entity. It did not even come close to Frelimo in Mozambique, the MPLA in Angola or Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe. Moreover, as all of us now know, nothing came out of those experiments with the socialist project. Some actually turned out to be sham experiments, especially the Angolan one.

There is another aspect to the South African experience that many people do not understand or at least appreciate. That is, unlike Angola and Mozambique that country got its independence through a classical decolonisation process and not through a violent overthrow of the system.

And decolonisation, by defition and from experience, means getting into the system not getting out of it.

So, the ANC is thoroughly entangled into the capitalist tentacles. Today, many people in the ANC top brass have become instant millionaires through some shady and not shady deals including the now notorious black economic empowerment schemes, which Namibia is also apparently implementing to the detriment of the majority. And I am sure this ANC nouveau riche would not be impressed by any move to the left even if this were to become a real possibility.

Here enter the ANC Youth League, the Women’s League, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP) who are said to have brought Zuma to power and are thus in need of reward.

Here again we got it wrong. None of these entities, perhaps with the exception of the SACP, has called for a socialist order in SA. The point is that one can still reward supporters without a socialist system in place.

The now widely used system of political patronage in Africa used by likes of the late Mobutu and to some extent by Mugabe does not require a socialist order.

One can just use state resources to reward loyal supporters – perhaps unfairly.

The SACP has always been an anomaly to me. How can a party that calls itself communist decide to hibernate in the belly of a capitalist movement?

From the perspective of the ANC, this was a convenient arrangement, at least before independence, because it helped the party galvanise support from the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe to fight apartheid.

However, the continued relationship between the SACP and the ANC shows that the SACP cannot make it on its own because South Africans are simply not interested in a socialist order – or so it seems.

The conclusion is simple: Zuma is not a Fidel Castro, or a Hugo Chavez at that.

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