By Simon Howell
When Mbeki made his televised resignation speech, I found it interesting to note what some of the SMS messages were saying at the bottom of the screen. While some were condemning (or condoning) Mbeki’s resignation, a very large percentage ended with the idea that Mbeki should resign “to give others a chance”. Well, now that much of the cabinet has resigned along with the Head of State, which I think was a very apt gesture, many people will “get their chance”.
The problem, though, is that the smooth and stable running of a large government needs to be seen as far more complex than simply “giving people a chance”. While an argument could be made that this type of rhetoric is the product of the hyper-democratic discourse that South Africa situates itself in, I find it downright scary that people think that government is simply something people can come in and out of without any direction, training, or skill.
This, however, assumes that government is an essentially elitist project, a perspective which Zuma and the ANCYL have always made abundantly clear. It seems that “the people” want a government that is responsive to their needs, that is “in touch”, and caring. The problem is that, in order to be what the people want, you need a government that is well run. And with nearly all of the experienced ministers and Mbeki resigning, that knowledge has just walked out or, more accurately, been pushed out the door.
The road for Zuma to become president is now clear. Many people applaud this but there is clearly an equal amount fear. Zuma’s popularity with “the people” arises out of his ability to connect with the people, make them false promises they can believe in, and make them feel a part of the political process (skills which Mbeki never developed, with good reason). Problematically though, in order for these demands to be met, and the promises to be fulfilled, South Africa is going to have to look to ways of implementing and advancing its macro-economic project, a project which, at the time of writing, lacks a leader. Furthermore, the type of rhetoric espoused of “overthrowing” and “fighting” with the “comrades”, is not what investors are looking for in a country, investors who South Africa really need at this point in time.
The question is, where to now? The end of an era has been forcefully implemented, and perhaps the new era that is being heralded in may bring more fruitful results. The rifts in South African society seem to be growing larger, as does the gap between the rich and the poor. How long the present government can continue to claim the backwards legitimacy of “the struggle” remains to be seen, but when that legitimacy runs out, I can’t help but think South Africa, and South Africans, are going to have resolve their identity crises very, very quickly.