Seeking to buy off allies and cracking down on dissent: bad signs in South AfricaSep 2nd 2010
WHEN he became president of South Africa just over a year ago, Jacob Zuma promised to quench South Africans’ thirst for renewal. After the aloof and idiosyncratic Thabo Mbeki, here was a big-hearted, charismatic “man of the people” who would unite a fractious country and help it make itself felt in the world. Sure enough, Mr Zuma was at his beguiling best during the football World Cup, a festival that passed off even better than most had dared hope.
Yet even at the time of his election, it was not clear what Mr Zuma stood for. At home, in front of African National Congress audiences, he sounded like a nationalist and socialist. Abroad, he sounded like a free-market liberal. He never properly explained what he believed in. Pessimists suggested it was getting power and holding on to it.
So far, it looks as though they are right. Mr Zuma still hasn’t explained his vision, but his actions since he came to power suggest that it consists in paying off his political allies while cracking down on his critics.
The first tendency is illustrated by the government’s response to the latest round of strikes by the public-sector unions. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) demanded an excessive 8.6% pay rise, more than double the rate of inflation, at a time when the country’s recovery from last year’s recession is fragile. Rather than facing these demands down, the government gave in to threats of even bigger strikes by raising its “final offer” of 7% by a further 0.5 percentage points. Not surprisingly, as The Economist went to press the unions were holding out for even more (see article).
The political reasons for caving in to Cosatu are clear. The union is an important ally on the ANC’s left. Mr Zuma is paying his dues to it. But the economic consequences of doing so are also obvious. The above-inflation pay increases that Cosatu has claimed over the past five years have swelled government expenditure and crowded out spending on worthier causes. Over-generous pay settlements will jeopardise economic recovery. Moreover, the money goes to workers who are already relatively well off, rather than to the 40% of South Africans who are without a job, many of them living in dire poverty. And at the same time as Mr Zuma’s government is giving too much money to its allies, it is threatening to remove liberties from its critics.
For all South Africa’s faults, its press has at its best been riotously, exhilaratingly free. The country’s 1996 constitution, one of the most liberal in the world, includes a protection of free speech and a right to “access any information held by the state”. In a democracy dominated by one party, as South Africa is, a free press is an especially important check on the abuse of power by the government.
Yet some in the ANC have never liked the press’s freedom to criticise. Hence a proposed new Protection of Information Bill that would impose arbitrary restrictions on access to government information, backed up by extreme punishments of up to 25 years in jail. The government wants to judge the release of information against a sweeping new test of the “national interest”, rather than today’s standard of “national security”. Ominously, it would be up to ministers to define the national interest. And a new Media Appeals Tribunal, also appointed by the government, would ensure that all reporting was “fair”, although it is not clear yet what powers it would have to punish “unfair” journalists. If all this were to happen, South Africa’s press would end up being subject to restrictions not seen since the days of apartheid.
Mr Zuma’s attitude to these proposals is not yet clear. He has not publicly supported the bill, yet he has not killed it; but when he says the press should be promoting the country’s “human rights culture” as well as its “prosperity, stability and the well-being of its people” instead of spreading “a daily diet of negativity and defeatism”, he sounds depressingly like the leader of Eritrea or Myanmar.
Time to come good
South Africa is Africa’s biggest economy and its most influential country. It could lead the continent towards prosperity and freedom, or in the other direction. It is largely up to Mr Zuma to decide which way it goes.
The signs so far are worrying, but it is early days yet. There is plenty of time for Mr Zuma to take a public stand against this rotten press bill. It would be a good way of telling his countrymen, and the rest of the world, that he has a vision for South Africa—and that it is a decent one.
SHOOT: Africa and Africans are desperate to escape the continent-wide shackles of poverty. To do this, leaders like Zuma have to do what African leaders - wuth the exception of Nelson Mandela - have never done before. Put corruption and self indulgences aside and lead. Lead the people - honestly, and decently.