Leader no longer: President Jacob Zuma poses with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, right, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2017. Picture: DIRCO/KATHLOLO MAIFADI
Leader no longer: President Jacob Zuma poses with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, right, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2017. Picture: DIRCO/KATHLOLO MAIFADI

SA is in the grip of political uncertainty. That President Jacob Zuma will go before the official end of his tenure after national elections in 2019 is inevitable. But when, how and at what cost to the ANC and the country?

The crisis is being framed as one of internal party politics or the immorality of Zuma and his supporters. But the impact is much bigger and wider, affecting SA’s standing in Africa and in the world.

In 1994 the world, and particularly African countries, looked to SA to provide ethical leadership after the end of apartheid. This was boldly depicted in the African Renaissance, the cultural, scientific and economic renewal of the continent championed by former president Thabo Mbeki.

For a short time SA occupied the moral high ground and was able to influence the agenda of intergovernmental organisations like the UN, the AU and the Southern African Development Community.

South Africans were called on to play a key role in a number of areas. There are two that stand out. One is conflict management in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lesotho, Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe. The other is that SA was supposed to be the "bridge-builder" between the West and the continent.

SA twice took a seat on the UN Security Council and was part of initiatives such as the India, Brazil, SA Dialogue Forum. It also became part of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA (Brics) association, among other global bodies.

But from about 2010 SA’s leadership role began to slip. It has now arrived at a point where it can no longer claim to be leading any renaissance.

The new reality is that it is beset with governance challenges similar to many other African states.

The rest of the continent watches and sees yet another example of a dream deferred. The expectations that the country would lead the continent have gone.

It, too, is in the throes of regime survival. The lament is: SA has become just another African country.

The meltdown of the ANC should not have come as much of a surprise given the events over the past 20 years and the inevitable decline of liberation parties.

Pointers to the inglorious direction the country was headed in were evident in the corruption around the arms deal (1999), the fight over Mbeki’s refusal to roll out antiretroviral treatment (1990s), the decline in the economy on the back of a global crisis (2008-09) and rising unemployment (from 2008).

To this should be added the rising appetite of an emerging black elite, whose acquisition of wealth was closely tied to state resources tenderpreneurs.

Then in 2007, buoyed by populist appeal for a change of the guard, Zuma rose to power as president of the ANC. The following year the ANC’s national executive committee forced Mbeki to resign.

He had lost the support of the committee over a range of issues including economic policy, his style of leadership and a focus on continental and international affairs rather than domestic issues.

Mbeki sacked Zuma as deputy president in June 2005, after the court findings of a corrupt relationship with Schabir Shaik, his friend and financial adviser at the time.

The political contestation between the Mbeki and Zuma factions set in, leading to Mbeki’s political demise.

The deepening of the structural roots of the malaise in SA has therefore been long in the making.

Conflation of the state and the party, state capture and patronage politics became the defining features of Zuma’s presidency. And, ultimately, they became the factors that led to his dethroning.

SA began to display the stereotypical symptoms of the typical African state: elite decadence in the midst of poverty; accumulation of wealth through proximity to state resources and state capture; challenges in the delivery of services and an increasing inability to provide human security.

SA’s claim to exceptionalism in Africa has been dispelled.

Two decades ago Ugandan academic and author Mahmood Mamdani pointed to the myth of SA’s exceptionalism and that it shares the legacies of colonialism and the bifurcated nature of the state that colonialism had bequeathed other African states too.

This meant that the country was no different in its political and development outcomes.

Leadership is an important mediator for the direction of any country. Visionary and principled leadership led the continent, and SA, to liberation. It’s what is sorely needed across the continent and in SA.

SA finds itself in this situation because the country has succumbed to nationalist, chauvinist, patriarchal and elite interests.

But changing the president, though necessary, will not be sufficient to get the country out of this quagmire.

South Africans need new leaders as well as new forms of leadership who understand the driving forces of post-colonial states and their proclivity towards nondemocratic forms of governance.

SA needs leadership that places it once again in the political and socioeconomic trajectory of Africa and fosters a collective responsibility to develop and share its wealth among all who call it home.

It must also develop the governance structures that will lead it to that goal. To do this requires moving beyond regime survival towards reinvigorating a visionary pan-African leadership that once again begins to set an agenda of unity, prosperity and dignity.

SA is no longer the beacon of hope for the continent it once was. But South Africans need not despair.

The recognition of its banality presents the opportunity for its people to sit as equals at the table with other Africans and engage in much-needed dialogue on the kind of leadership and governance that would take them on the journey to an African Renaissance.

• Hendricks is professor of political science at the University of Johannesburg. This article first appeared on  The Conversation 

The Conversation

Please sign in or register to comment.