South Africans want Zuma out, but would that bring real change?

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Thousands are taking to the streets with just one goal: to oust President Jacob Zuma. But his removal might not do much to solve SA’s problems, writes  Sinikka Tarvainen.

Thousands of South Africans are taking to the streets with just one goal: to oust President Jacob Zuma. But his removal might not do much to solve the country’s problems.

Protesters on the lawns of the Union Buildings in Pretoria during the protest by opposition parties calling for President Jacob Zuma to step down. Picture: EPA

As thousands of South Africans keep taking to the streets to pressure President Jacob Zuma to step down, it seems as if he were the only obstacle to the country moving forward.

“Zuma must fall” has become a popular slogan since demonstrations against corruption and unemployment gathered pace in 2015. Even many members of Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC) party have turned against him.

Removing Zuma, however, may not be a panacea to solve SA’s problems, analysts say.

The ANC is so dominated by people with ties or an outlook similar to Zuma’s, and the country’s economic problems are so intermingled with inequalities inherited from the apartheid era, that his ouster might in fact not change much, they say.

Zuma’s reputation has been tarnished by a string of corruption scandals, including one involving the use of taxpayers’ money to upgrade his country home, and his close ties to an influential business family.

Millions of South Africans meanwhile live in illegal settlements with hardly any services, while economic growth slowed to 0.3 per cent last year and more than a quarter of the workforce is unemployed.

The country’s economic woes were worsened by Zuma’s decision to sack respected finance minister Pravin Gordhan, which sent the rand into free fall and prompted two ratings agencies to downgrade South Africa to junk status.

While the economic stagnation is partly due to external factors such as a drought and a slump in mineral prices, it is also seen as being due to erroneous policies.

“Wastage and corruption together with the bailing out of a series of unproductive state-owned companies have squandered very precious tax resources that should have gone into infrastructure development and service delivery,” said Frans Cronje, CEO of the think-tank South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

The problem is not only slow growth, but also the “gigantic inequality” between the rich elite and the poor masses, said Nicolas Pons-Vignon, senior economics researcher at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University.

The country has one of the highest inequality rates in the world, with the top decile accounting for 58 percent of the country’s income, while the bottom half accounts for less than 8 percent, according to the World Bank.

The whitewashed villas surrounded by security walls in Johannesburg’s leafy suburbs stand in contrast to townships with unpaved roads and shack dwellings.

More than two decades after the end of apartheid, the inequality still largely overlaps with the black-white divide, despite the emergence of a black middle class.

More than 70 percent of the country’s top managers are white, despite blacks making up 80 percent and whites only 8 percent of the 56-million population, according to IRR.

Nearly all white children graduate from secondary school, compared to 67 percent of black children, IRR has said.

The government’s Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programmes, which practise affirmative action through measures such as giving black-led companies preference for state contracts, have mainly benefited just a small elite linked to those in power, according to critics.

Only 14 percent of blacks have benefited from BEE, IRR said in a new study.

Zuma is now trying to turn black discontent to his advantage by pledging “radical economic transformation” against “white monopoly capital.”

Pons-Vignon dismisses such talk as “pure rhetoric in light of the sustained failure to respond to the demands of poor people” and their constant protest rallies, which have gone on for years but received little media coverage, to call for better schools or health care.

Zuma’s real interest is in securing his wealth and shielding himself from prosecution after he leaves power, analysts say. Cronje sees the sacking of Gordhan as part of a power play that allowed the president to reassert his control over the ANC.

The liberation movement that gave the world the iconic Nelson Mandela and has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994 saw its support dwindle in the August 2016 local elections.

It is, however, still expected to win the 2019 national elections, which Zuma can no longer contest after serving two terms.

Another ANC leader who might replace Zuma “would be unlikely to change the current neo-liberal economic policies that have been unable to lift the black majority out of poverty,” Pons-Vignon told dpa.

If the ANC later suffers an election defeat to the pro-business Democratic Alliance (DA), the new government may do a better job at spurring growth, but it is not any more likely to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, analysts said.

A DA-led government “would mainly just make a difference to big business, which is already well treated in South Africa,” Pons-Vignon said. – dpa

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