EconoMatters

Zuma’s Fall: Why is South Africa So Divided?

Though the economy suffered during his tenure, Zuma was a shining example of what a better life could mean for rural South Africans.

Credit: michaeljung Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Though the economy suffered during his tenure, Zuma was a shining example of what a better life could mean for rural South Africans.
  • Zuma’s talking down of the country’s establishment resonated with rural South Africans, for whom life is still characterized by abject poverty and massive unemployment.
  • Zuma refused to acknowledge the fact that, under his leadership, the country’s sovereign bonds plummeted from an A grade to junk.
  • To be fair to Zuma, running a country such as South Africa was always going to prove difficult. Its modern and sophisticated economy needed more support than just giggles in Parliament.
  • Zuma will be remembered as a bitter old man who refused to see that the world had changed.

Even though Jacob Zuma is no longer in office, why is South Africa still so divided about the man?

The answer lies in Zuma’s complex, yet easy-going character. For rural South Africans, Zuma was a shining example of what a better life could mean for them.

A man of the people

After all, he was one of them. Zuma built his extensive patronage around the development of parts of his home village of Nkandla. His rhetoric about white monopoly capital sounded as the quickest way out of their misery.

And Zuma’s talking down of the country’s establishment resonated with them as well. Life in rural South Africa is still characterized by abject poverty, massive unemployment and lack of development.

As I listened to Zuma giving his side of the story on the developments in South Africa, I could not help but admire his courage to steadfastly refuse calls to step down because, in his view, he has done nothing wrong.

Zuma genuinely believes he still had the backing of the vast majority behind him. He believed that lack of direct foreign investment in South Africa was a figment of some people’s imagination.

He just could not understand why most people around the world found investing in South Africa as laughable as buying shares in the Guptas’ Oakbay Investment Limited.

No wonder that Zuma also refused to acknowledge the fact that, under his leadership, the country’s sovereign bonds plummeted from an A grade to junk. As a result, the cost of living for the poorest of the poor has become unbearable.

Failing to ignite the economy

In addition, the state-owned enterprises, which the National Development Plan had identified as key drivers of his economic development plan, failed to ignite the economy. Instead, they scandalously became enrichment schemes for the Guptas and their associates.

As well, under Zuma, the rand plunged to levels yet unseen and the South African stock market wiped off R170 billion that were due to making reckless cabinet appointments.

Furthermore, any sense of self-discipline and important institutional memory that could have taken the country forward was lost in key government departments.

But there is more, much more. Unemployment has reached historic levels. During Zuma’s tenure as the head of state, the economy fell from near 4% growth to stagnation. Everyone now has to tighten their belts to cover the R50 billion budget shortfall. The list is endless.

It ain’t easy

To be fair to Zuma, running a country such as South Africa was always going to prove difficult. Its modern and sophisticated economy needed more support than just giggles in Parliament.

It needed someone who could move from rhetoric to pragmatism. Someone who appreciates what the country’s priorities are and what action plans could be taken to address them.

In short, it needed – and very much needs – a lean, but clear articulation of what government policies are. It means aligning South Africa’s education system to the demands of the new economic realities.

Very few people will remember Zuma as the affable bloke whose charm could disarm even his fiercest critic. Very few will remember his brilliant assembling of the country’s best minds to craft the National Development Plan — the masterstroke that set up a ministry that dealt directly with small businesses. He is also to be lauded for his determination to tackle HIV/Aids head-on.

Instead, he will just be remembered as a bitter old man who refused to see that the world had changed.

In that sense, Zuma went the same way as Rip van Winkle who missed the American Revolution or as Robert Mugabe who famously interpreted the scenes of Zimbabweans taking to the streets as a chaotic discussion on what the nation wanted to buy for him and Grace for Christmas.

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About Sechaba Nkosi

Sechaba Nkosi has traveled Africa extensively as a correspondent for numerous publications covering upheavals from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Zimbabwe and Lesotho.

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