A good read from the Guardian.
Zuma's political honeymoon slips into a winter of discontent
If Winston Churchill was to be believed, he did not in fact say of Clement Attlee: "An empty taxi drew up outside No 10 Downing Street, and when the door opened, Attlee got out." But the whiff of the man who wasn't there has clung to certain political leaders throughout time. We just didn't expect it to emanate from the South African president, Jacob Zuma.
During this year's election campaign, Zuma's shiny pate was everywhere on placards tied to lampposts in city streets and the remotest rural village.
You couldn't switch on a television without seeing the swivelling hips and hearing his oft-repeated ditty, "Umshini wami" (Bring me my machinegun). Whereas the former president Thabo Mbeki was an aloof, out-of-touch philosopher king, we were told, Zuma was a massive presence in every sense, a Zulu warrior king so in touch with the people he had already married four of them.
But the political honeymoon has rapidly slipped into a winter of discontent. Doctors, miners, train drivers and workers in the chemical, construction, energy, paper, printing, retail and state broadcasting sectors have downed tools. More than half a million working days were lost due to strikes in the first half of this year, more than twice that in the same period in 2008. Residents have been warned to expect power cuts at home, no buses or trains to get to work and streets piled high with rubbish.
The flexing of trade union muscles is coinciding with unrest in South Africa's impoverished townships that has turned violent. The air has filled with clouds of teargas, the whizz of rubber bullets and the acrid smoke of burning tyres, while buildings and vehicles have been set ablaze. Their patience exhausted after 15 years of promises following the end of apartheid, some who still lack electricity, water or a functioning toilet are even calling for the return of white minority rule.
Where, then, is the president at this moment of national crisis? It is perhaps unfortunate that on the front page of the latest issue of the City Press newspaper, he is pictured grinning broadly and dancing while a banner headline reads: "The week South Africa burned."
On Wednesday, as youths fought running battles with police in Siyathemba township (near Johannesburg), jobless people marched and looted shops in Durban, and residents of Pilisi Farm informal settlement barricaded a highway with burning tyres and stoned passing cars, Zuma was at the Union Buildings with Sir Richard Branson. It was not, in fairness, a publicity stunt for the tireless entrepreneur's Virgin Atlantic, but rather the joint announcement of a disease control centre for South Africa.
At the press conference, however, Zuma refused to answer questions about the service delivery protests. It was an own goal that allowed the opposition Democratic Alliance to accuse him of being "detached" and showing an "uncaring attitude and unwillingness to tackle the issue head on".
A day later, as TV crews descended on the townships, Zuma missed the politician's trick of a walkabout to show he was feeling the pain. Instead he was in Sandton, the richest square mile in Africa, addressing a conference of well-heeled black businessmen. At last, he spoke about the demonstrations, but in the view of many, it was too little too late.
The Citizen newspaper noted: "Reading a prepared speech to a well-fed audience at a gathering of the Confederation of Black Business Organisations in Sandton's plush convention centre is not the ideal way to calm the storm. Impoverished, disaffected people enduring this bitter winter cold without adequate shelter, food or clothing will not have been impressed."
The Citizen added: "If Zuma must read a prepared speech he should do so on national TV, to all South Africans. Better still, he should throw away the speeches and go to the hotspots. Visit the aggrieved and tell them how government will help."
Like George Bush, Zuma was a regular guy who appealed to the heartland but, like Bush during Hurricane Katrina, the populist touch appears to have deserted him. On Saturday he began, at a poorly attended rally, a two-month tour of South Africa to thank voters for putting the African National Congress in power once again. His opponents argue he would be far better advised to use this time visiting townships where shack dwellers huddle around paraffin stoves, water drips from communal taps while sewers overflow, and violent crime and vigilantism are rife.
But there are some seasoned watchers who believe Zuma is merely a figurehead and not really in charge at all. They say that the true centre of power has shifted to the ANC headquarters and its secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe. By summoning cabinet ministers to account for their implementation of ANC policy, he has been accused of blurring the line between party and state.
Mantashe is also national chairperson of the South African Communist party.
Is it possible that the power behind the throne of a G20 nation is a commie? It must be said that the ANC comrades tend to practise communism-lite. But when Mantashe gave a lecture recently at Johannesburg's Wits University, I asked him if he would describe himself as a Marxist.
"I would not describe myself as a Marxist," he replied. "I am a Marxist."
He added that he has no better conceptual tools with which to understand the world. It is conceivable then that, if Zuma continues to fiddle while the townships burn, South Africa's fate may yet depend on the prescription of Das Kapital.
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