South African consul general Fikile Magubane made a useful observation when introducing ANC president Jacob Zuma to a packed house at New York University last Friday: “In the hurly burly of democracy, and especially in an election season, we often mistake caricature for reality.”
Painting rivals and their positions in broad, unflattering strokes is a part of all political campaigns. Do not expect to hear anything useful about Senator Barack Obama’s economic views from Senator John McCain in the thick of the fray, or vice versa.
For similar reasons, having to do with an even more protracted political season, it has been hard for outsiders to get a clear fix on where South Africa is headed. The problem has been exacerbated by the prejudices that colour analyses of countries such as South Africa in the absence of persuasively presented countervailing evidence.
This is not healthy. South Africa, as we were reminded last week with the release of the IMF’s latest Article IV report, remains dependent on volatile foreign savings to finance its propensity to consume more than it produces. The ability of government to fulfill its promises to the poor remains contingent on the confidence – in short supply everywhere — of foreign investors.
So it made good sense for Zuma and senior members of the ANC executive – Mathews Phosa, Zweli Mkhize and Nomaindia Mfeketo — to spend last week in Washington and New York demystifying themselves to companies, hedge funds, policymakers and the media. Inasmuch as they meant to show they were not wild-eyed revolutionaries about to put the pedal to the fiscal metal, they did what they came to do.
There would be no veering left the on economic policy, Zuma and Phosa insisted. On fears that Cosatu and the SACP were starting to wag the ANC dog, Zuma said of the alliance partners: “They participate, they do not determine. Debate does not mean the ANC has turned around”.
The spending priorities Zuma enumerated at every appearance were precisely those outlined in the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement Trevor Manuel tabled in Parliament on their second day in Washington: education, health, infrastructure, crime and rural development.
To the extent that these priorities would be more difficult to fund in the current environment, Phosa emphasized that spending would be stretched out rather than fiscal discipline relaxed. He used the analogy of driving more slowly to consume less fuel. The priorities would be met, just not as quickly.
Zuma, quite fairly, would not pre-announce his cabinet picks, but he and Phosa expressed nothing but admiration and support for Manuel and Tito Mboweni at the Reserve Bank. At this point they were “very happy” with inflation targeting. Phosa observed that if Mboweni was to let inflation take off “there will be upheaval”.
Zimbabwe came up a great deal, of course, not least in a robust session with editors of the Wall Street Journal. Zuma and his team did their best to get across that the problem was not simply one difficult man, Robert Mugabe, but a difficult party, ZANU-PF, whose behaviour violated the ANC’s most cherished principals. The notion that there had to be a negotiated solution and that Africa had to broker it remained a hard sell, but Zuma, Phosa and Mkhize argued the case effectively and won respect in a place worth winning it as they did so.
They also successfully used the smoothness of Thabo Mbeki’s recall and replacement to illustrate the country’s stability and the resilience of its young democracy. In one of his best laugh lines throughout the week, Zuma said he had been told by generals from Nigeria and Ghana that the same thing could not have happened in their countries without triggering civil war.
All that had happened in South Africa was that some dissenters had gone off in a huff, as was their right in a free society, so long as they didn’t use ANC resources to start their own party. That sounded reasonable. Showing themselves to be reasonable – and not the caricatures painted in the heat of political contest — was what Zuma and his team chiefly needed to do for the country’s sake. They succeeded.