Defeat symbolises normalisation
text size

Defeat symbolises normalisation

Jacob Zuma, former South African president, left, visits the uMkhonto weSizwe stand at the Independent Electoral Commission on Saturday. BLOOMBERG
Jacob Zuma, former South African president, left, visits the uMkhonto weSizwe stand at the Independent Electoral Commission on Saturday. BLOOMBERG

Last Thursday, a television news crew made its way to former South African president Jacob Zuma's homestead, an ugly monstrosity controversially built at a cost of 250 million rand (500 million baht) of taxpayers' money, in his rural village of Nkandla. The crew got to interview Zuma after midnight. At about 2am, the crew watched in amazement as a genial Zuma, aged 82, welcomed a delegation of French diplomats into his living room for a meeting.

The indefatigable Zuma has run a relentless campaign since announcing his parting of ways with the ruling African National Congress (ANC), the party that led the liberation struggle and of which he was leader for 10 years until 2017. He has addressed public meetings, attended numerous court appearances, attacked his adversaries in the ANC and institutions of state, sang and danced energetically at political rallies and travelled extensively across the country.

It paid off. Zuma is highly likely to win, for successfully eating into the ruling ANC's support and that of the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and others, and then to become a key figure in post-election coalition arrangements at the national level and in his populous, Zulu-speaking home region of KwaZulu Natal.

Six months ago, the ANC seemed headed for a narrow win or an outcome where it would easily form a coalition with a small party. The rise of the MK Party has changed the calculus dramatically. The more the ANC declines below 50%, the more likely it is that it will need to partner with a bigger party -- either the EFF, which would drive policy in a radical left direction, or the pro-business Democratic Alliance. Or Zuma's MK Party.

This has caused anxiety in business and capital markets, but it does not matter that much in the greater scheme of things. The 2024 election is the most uncertain in South Africa's 30-year-old democracy, but it is also the most welcome. It is historic and necessary in the evolution of the country: After 30 years of ANC dominance, the party of liberation is losing its grip on power -- and it is doing so peacefully and with an admirable fidelity to the rule of law and democratic practice. In an era of Big Men politics globally, the ANC has consistently followed the path of free and fair elections.

In 2004, the ANC won 70% of all votes cast at national level, and in some rural provinces it won more than 80%. With this election, real competition has arrived. Even if it scrapes through above 50% or manages to form coalitions to govern nationally (as most analysts expect), the party's dominance is over.

South Africa is normalising. It is moving away from post-liberation politics to the hard and sometimes uncertain work of a normal competitive democracy, of power that changes hands. In the long term, this is good.

But it is not without peril. Zuma, who is set to win, is a dangerous man. In July 2021, when he was jailed for contempt of court for refusing to testify about widespread graft during his presidency, his supporters went on a rampage, rioting and looting in a two-week frenzy of violence that left 354 people dead. Last week, private security companies warned of widespread protest action anticipated during and after elections by MKP supporters disappointed that the highest court has barred him from becoming a member of parliament due to his 2021 conviction on contempt of court charges. His party can, however, still run and his face appears on the ballot.

Winner of the election will take over a country ripe for economic growth and success. President Cyril Ramaphosa ousted Zuma in 2018 promising to rid the country of corruption and to renew state institutions hollowed out by Zuma and his cronies. It is the irony of politics that he has begun succeeding, albeit in his slow and cautious style, as his party loses support.

The outgoing president has cleaned up the state electricity provider, which has been running for more than 52 days without the weekly blackouts of the past six years. Mr Ramaphosa has strengthened the revenue services, the prosecutorial institutions and a raft of other key agencies. He has established a strong relationship with private business to fight crime and fix state-owned enterprises. A new leader hopefully will need to accelerate his reforms to drive economic growth from its current anaemic levels (below 1%). ©2024 Bloomberg LP

Justice Malala is a political commentator and former editor of South Africa's This Day. He is the author of 'The Plot to Save South Africa: The Week Mandela Averted Civil War and Forged a New Nation'. This article was written before the election outcome. The continuing vote counting as of Sunday indicates Jacob Zuma's uMkhonto WeSizwe Party (MK Party) is highly likely to win.

Do you like the content of this article?