Things go better with Zuma

The unfortunate way of the independent political analyst is to scoff and sneer at everything government says and does. It’s usually a good bet. Government seldom disappoints.

But right now, as Tokoyo Sexwale brushes off the grime of his night in Diepsloot and yet another gangster look-alike takes over as national police commissioner, it is perhaps time to take a cursory glance at what appears better about the Polokwane revolution compared to the  Ancien Régime it dumped on the infamous scrapheap of history.

Firstly, it must be said that our politics is both more interesting and easier to understand than the whisky soured diktats that used to drift across from the digital wastelands of Thabo Mbeki’s dark knight-errancy. There are real characters and contests in the new management and Bheki Cele and Tokoyo Sexwale are not exceptional.  What ministers and bureaucrats do and think is important again now that the dead hand of Thabo Mbeki has been removed from their collective shoulder.

Secondly, we have a chance to clear our name and wipe the filthy policy slate clean as regards HIV/AIDS and Zimbabwe – and we have made the first tentative moves in this regard. I am of the opinion that Mbeki’s policy on Zimbabwe was less flawed than his policy on provision of anti-retrovirals , but that is only a matter of degree. It is true that a change can feel as good as a holiday. Zuma has not said anything significantly different on Zimbabwe – although he has on HIV/AIDS – but history and timing conspire to attach to him the sense that he leads change on both these fronts. This is strengthened by the fact that his key backers in the form of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) have historically lined up on the side of the angels as far as both policy around HIV/AIDS and opposition to Mad Bob are concerned.

Thirdly, the cabinet, in its diversity and in its structure, was something of a coup. You may protest that the cabinet ministers have not yet proved themselves in their jobs and the structure has not yet been demonstrated to be effective – and this is true. But the point is that Zuma made sure he got all the factions and traditions in there together and they all had to deliver up their most technically skilled people to the jobs concerned. This is the opposite to Mbeki appointing and holding on to incompetents purely because they were loyal. So the cabinet’s large size, ideological diversity and unclear division of policy tasks may yet prove its undoing, but it’s a risk worth taking.

Finally, the new administration thinks of itself as promoting the interests of the poor and to this end they propose themselves as the architects of the Activist Developmental State. In this they have arrived on stage with good timing. The global recession has unleashed a major global reappraisal of the role of the state in the economy and the Zuma administration should be on the cutting edge of defining this role for the South African state. It has taken them some time to announce their immediate response to the crisis of unemployment brought about by the recession, but they have finally done so – yesterday – and while their plans are unambitious they’re a good start.

I hoped to favourably compare Jacob Zuma’s backgound (old-school/hard-school of economic marginalisation, prison and the ANC’s military and intelligence) with  Mbeki’s (ANC aristocracy, Sussex and years plodding through the diplomatic world of the exile mission). But I cannot, in good conscience, suggest that having the previous boss of the dreaded Mbokodo as our president is preferable, per se, to having a slightly fusty and scholarly policy-wonk in charge.

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