Is economic policy likely to change under Jacob Zuma?

25th March 2009 By: Adam Habib

What was Polokwane all about? Most people would recognize that Polokwane represented a rebellion by ANC delegates against Thabo Mbeki's rule. And it was motivated by two factors. First, which almost everyone seems to agree with, is that Mbeki is seen to have centralized power, not consulted enough, aggravated tensions in the party, and was seen as aloof and divorced from the membership. Second, which many in the ANC leadership seem to reject, is that delegates felt that the transition under Mbeki had disproportionately benefitted the rich and worked to the disadvantage of the poor. They were concerned about the inequalities that have defined the first 13 years of our transition, and the enrichment of the narrow politically connected elite that has become the hallmark of our black economic agenda.

How do we explain this? How do we explain this centralized managerial style and this exclusivist economic agenda? Most explanations are what are called agentially focused. They explain the management style or the economic agenda as a product of Mbeki and his personality. Xolela Mangcu's recent book To the Brink and Mark Gevisser's biography of Mbeki are examples of this. For Gevisser, who provides the most sophisticated of these explanations, the centralized style of management is a product of a personality that grew up in no-mans land - in between the rural and urban, in between modernism and traditionalism, in between father and comrade, and in-between the international and the national. This profoundly affected Mbeki and the aloof personality that we have come to know and defined the centralized management style of his presidency.

I do not buy this explanation completely. I do not believe it recognizes the issue of institutional constraints, and that individuals, however powerful their personalities, are constrained by the positions they occupy and the pressures they subjected to.

A more coherent explanation has to look at the systemic rationale for both macro-economic policy choices and the centralization of power under Mbeki. When the ANC came into power in 19994, it confronted a number of pressures. It inherited a nearly bankrupt state, was confronted with an ambitious set of expectations from the previously disenfranchised, and an investment strike by the business community. To get investment and growth going, the ANC leadership felt that they had to make a series of economic concessions most of which was captured in the Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy (GEAR). As soon as they made this decision, they confronted another dilemma. How to get the program passed for they feared that their own comrades in the national legislature would defeat it? So they bypassed the very structures of democracy that they had inaugurated. They endorsed GEAR in cabinet and implemented it. This established a centralizing dynamic in the South African political system. From there it was a short step to appointing premiers and mayors and marginalizing the decision-making structures of the party and state.

So if systemic dynamics led to the centralisation of power and our economic policy choices, is the ANC under Zuma, or the country under Zuma or his appointee, likely to be different? On the economic policy front, I think there is likely to be very little change. It is worthwhile bearing in mind that economic policy has gradually been shifting to the left under Thabo Mbeki. We no longer speak of privatization. There has been a significant increase in social support grants and in the health and education budget. We have a major led state led infrastructural investment program. We now speak of the developmental rather than the lean state.

Economic policy under Zuma is likely to maintain this gradual trend to the left. It is unlikely to constitute a radical departure. We are unlikely to see the nationalization of Sasol or Mittal as the communist party wanted. The shifts that do occur are likely to be in line with what already exists.

On managerial style, there is likely to be a significant difference. As we know Jacob Zuma has a more consultative personality. He is more open, quotes Shakespeare far less, and is much more personable. There are also less structural pressures prompting centralization. There is a less of a divide on economic policy between the ANC leadership and its activist base. The international community is more open to an interventionist agenda with the failures of the Washington Consensus and the "new war on terror". The business community is also more open to intervening in the economy to address the concerns of the poor.

So under Zuma, a significant shift in economic policy is unlikely. But a different managerial style can be expected, one less centralized, more consultative and probably more personable, all of which is likely to be positive for accountability and democracy in South Africa. This is worth bearing in mind especially given the pessimism implicit in the national debate in recent weeks. So when raising criticisms that need to made against the new ANC leadership' attempts to close the Scorpions, and in reprimanding them for their continuous gaffs, it is important that we do assume that everything is dire. South Africa under the new ANC leadership is very much like that under the old leadership: there are both positives and negatives. Our challenge is to welcome the positives while continuing to struggles against the negatives by holding this leadership accountable to their promises and to the national constitution.

Adam Habib is Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Advancement at the University of Johannesburg