Reconciliation and the Zuma presidency

JAN HOFMEYR writes that symbolic acts of reconciliation should be accompanied by a renewed effort to make government accessible to ordinary South Africans.

The repeated commitments that our newly elected president, Jacob Zuma, has made to nation-building and reconciliation since his inauguration are commendable. His pledge to prioritise national unity and greater tolerance and respect between South Africans could not have come at a more appropriate time.

In this country, as in many others around the world, ordinary people are struggling. As the global economic slowdown tightens its stranglehold on households, growing levels of material deprivation have raised the spectre of increased domestic volatility in many states. Developing states are most vulnerable, but if the marked increase in militancy of this year’s May Day celebrations across Western Europe is anything to go by, it suggests that even in highly developed economies, the prospect of public violence cannot be excluded.

What makes the handling of the global crisis’ impact on South Africa particularly challenging is that it not only threatens our economic gains of the past decade and a half, but – if not managed with the necessary sensitivity – it may further deepen existing social cleavages of which race and class are the most obvious. Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, some of the most contentious debates in our country over the past decade and a half have split opinion along these familiar lines.

In the same week that Zuma dedicated his presidency to nation-building at his inauguration, the announcement that the unemployment rate has increased by 1.6 percentage points from 21.9% in the fourth quarter of 2008 to 23.5% in the first quarter of 2009, must have been of concern to the new administration. The loss of income for over 200 000 individuals and their families over this short period has much broader social ramifications than just increased levels of public dependence upon the state to provide. With the first recession in 17 years looming, it is likely that competition for scarce material resources, services and opportunities by those that find themselves on different sides of these social cleavages will increase. While not condoning last year’s wave of xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals, we would be naïve to ignore the fact that it was provoked by deep-seated perceptions relating to such issues.

Zuma, who has a strong track record in navigating such tensions and bringing opposing parties to agreement, may be just the candidate to guide the country through this volatile period.

At the start of his first term, he is well positioned to do so. His close relationship to the political left, and particularly the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), will provide the scope to negotiate and develop strategies to confront the current economic challenges together with a constituency, which in many other countries takes to the streets to protest painful recovery programmes that have excluded their voice. Rather than being part of the problem, the inclusion of several ministers from Cosatu and the SA Communist Party (SACP) make them part of the solution. While it would be unwise to believe that Cosatu and the SACP’s support for Zuma is unconditional, this relationship of trust, as opposed to the one that existed with former President Mbeki, does offer greater prospects for compromise and sacrifice between the left and business leaders, from whom, incidentally, Zuma also received significant support.

Furthermore, as far as his relationship to minority groups is concerned, it has been noticeable how the themes of  inclusivity and consultation featured in the new president’s recent election campaign. During this period he has, for example, gone out of his way to listen to the concerns of these groups. Regardless of whether his assurances to these groups were, as some have claimed, opportunistic or not, the fact that he deemed it necessary to engage with them, did in itself communicate an important message to those in these communities who feel marginalised.

Yet, if the new presidency seeks to entrench a more solid ethos of nation-building and reconciliation in the longer term, one of its most challenging tasks would be to restore public faith in the country’s key democratic institutions.

Ideally such institutions should serve as a cohesive force within society, but as events relating to the power struggle within the African National Congress (ANC) unfolded over the past two years, a disconcerting picture emerged of a public service that has become captive to factional groupings within the ruling party. Institutions that are supposed to serve and protect the interests of the population at large became fixated upon a narrow power struggle within the ANC and, apparently, used dirty tricks to achieve their objectives. In the process, the backbone of our constitutional state, the judicial system, had to endure serious abuse at the hands of those supposed to protect its mandate.

The impression that supposedly independent public bodies can be manipulated for private or sectional gain by a partisan state does pose a significant threat to nation-building because it feeds perceptions of exclusion and marginalisation. This is something that we cannot afford, especially at this juncture where the competition for resources and opportunities will intensify. Should a further perception take root that courts cannot be trusted to be objective in their pronouncements in the disputes that are likely to result from this, citizens may resort to other forms of justice they see as more expeditious, but not necessarily legal. Whether it is in relation to the allocation of housing, the building of healthcare facilities, or the implementation of land reform programmes, such an environment lends itself to conspiracy and mistrust, which ultimately deepens already profound levels of prejudice.

Zuma has on several occasions in past weeks invoked the spirit of reconciliation as it was pursued under the presidency of former President Mandela. In the absence of truly consolidated democratic institutions during his tenure, Mandela’s symbolic gestures of reconciliation provided the bridging social capital that new democratic institutions could not offer at the time. These actions provided them with the breathing space to develop legitimacy in the eyes of citizens. Fifteen years later, these bodies have become institutionalised within a constitutional dispensation, but serious questions still hang over the ability of some to further the cause of national unity. Symbolic gestures that promote national reconciliation remain as important as ever, but they cannot be sustained without translating such symbolism into actions that generate confidence amongst citizens. If the Zuma presidency truly seeks reconciliation at a more profound level than mere racial integration, the restoration of trust in these institutions must become an urgent priority.

Jan Hofmeyr is Programme Manager of Political Analysis at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

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