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Socio-economic empowerment

A president under fire

by D+C | E+Z

Opinion

The ANC, the party in power in South Africa, has achieved a lot since taking power in 1994. The economy is booming, and special governmental programmes promote economic opportunities for blacks. Nonetheless, progress is too slow in the view of many South Africans, including ANC members. [ By Jean-Pierre Kapp ]

At the moment, it is unclear whether a candidate favoured by President Thabo Mbeki will win the elections for ANC chairpersonship in December, or whether Mbeki might even be re-elected him­self. The party’s left wing, the COSATU labour union and some members of the Communist Party (a long-time ally of the ANC) no longer support him.

They accuse Mbeki of too liberal policies; and they want to see former Vice President Jacob Zuma at the party’s helm. In the past few years, Zuma raised his profile as spokesman of the poor.

The crisis within the ANC results from growing discontent among large segments of society. Many blacks feel that their situation has hardly changed since apartheid ended. On the other hand, the whites-dominated economy continues to boom. With an official unemployment rate at 37%, simply getting a job seems an utopian dream for most un- and low-skilled blacks.
According to Mbeki’s critics, his policies are preventing the poor from getting their fair share. While his approach has indeed been business-friendly in the past few years, that does not mean that he has forgotten the plight of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of new homes were built in townships, and water supply has been expanded.

In addition, the government has greatly increased the number of those who receive retirement benefits, thus reducing the share of the population that has to live on less than 3,000 rand (roughly the equivalent of € 300) per year from 50 % to 43 % since apartheid ended. Large infrastructure projects have been designed to create new jobs.
However, the number of jobs has only in the last years risen back to the pre-1994 level thanks to such measures. After apartheid ended, hundreds of thousands of jobs were cut as industries modernised. Because of apartheid, blacks had few skills, and thus became the main victims of modernisation. Nonetheless, the government paved the way for sustained economic growth by implementing unpopular reforms. In the meantime, growth has generated additional tax revenues, and more funds have thus become available for education purposes and the battle against Aids.

Progress has also been made through special programmes to support blacks, such as Affirmative Action and Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). Affirmative Action has greatly increased the number of blacks that work for the government, while BEE requires that blacks be hired by major South African firms. Unfortunately, those to benefit from these redistribution programmes were basically a small group of black business people and well-connected ANC members. The people in general, of course, are unhappy with this state of affairs.

Moreover, Mbeki’s government has not been all that successful in fighting corruption and crime, which the poor suffer from in particular. Mbeki’s challenger Zuma speaks from the hearts of many when accusing the government of doing too little for the poor. On the other hand, he has not yet said how he intends to make society fairer. Making matters worse, Zuma himself is suspected of involvement in a number of suspicious deals. He made international headlines with incompetent remarks about HIV/Aids when accused of sexual abuse sometime back.

Mbeki himself is partly responsible for Zuma’s rise as a challenger. The current president has simply not managed to convince the people of his policies. While Mbeki’s dry personality does not endear him to the public, Zuma’s jovial way of promising pie in the sky is quite charming. Whether it does the country any good, is a completely different matter.