Underestimate Jacob Zuma at your peril, I reminded some colleagues in the media fairly recently.
It would appear that the ANC president's bid for a second term as leader is all but rubber-stamped by his party; given that the majority of delegates to this weekend’s elective conference at Mangaung have already spoken for him.
Let me be the first to say it: the re-election of Jacob Zuma as ANC president is the best possible thing we can hope for in building a better country.
But first, some history.
If we recall the halcyon days of the Mandela era, the ANC was elected to power on the promise of a reconstruction and development programme: meeting basic needs; developing our human resources; building the economy; and democratising the state and society.
Former Cosatu General Secretary Jay Naidoo was appointed minister in charge of this portfolio.
Shortly thereafter, in what can probably be described as a minor palace coup by then ANC deputy president Thabo Mbeki, the RDP programme was shut down and replaced by what was called the “Growth, Employment, and Redistribution” programme (Gear).
Gear, in essence, was a sidelining of the quasi-socialist framework of the RDP and the introduction of a primarily capitalist framework. Mbeki was its architect. Gear upset a lot of people, particularly the SACP and Cosatu.
Except it worked.
Gear led to the single longest period of sustained economic growth in our country’s history through to 2008 – averaging 3,57 percent per annum according to Haroon Bhorat and Carlene van der Westhuizen in their 2009 publication Poverty, Inequality and the Nature of Economic Growth in South Africa.
In essence, by allowing business to do what they do best, wealth was generated by businesses and individuals at the upper end of the market at a scale not seen even during the apartheid era.
Mbeki then took wealth generated at the upper end of the market in the form of taxes and passed it on to the poorest of the poor in the form of social grants – old age pensions, child support grants, and disability grants. The result was an overall drastic decline in levels of poverty.
In short, the rich got richer, but the poor got richer too. Inequality widened, but quality of life increased dramatically for the poor as well as the rich.
And then, Mbeki was ousted.
Suddenly, Jacob Zuma found himself needing to pander to the interests of the SACP and Cosatu who had backed his ascendency to power. As a result, the economy went to hell in a handbasket.
While the government continued to bribe the lower end of the market (30 percent of the people) with increased social grants, and those of us at the upper end of the market (10 percent of the people) continued to make do with reduced profit margins, a new class was developing critical mass.
They are people who don’t qualify for RDP housing because they are not poor enough but cannot get a bond to buy a house because they are not rich enough. They are people who cannot get social grants but cannot afford medical aid. And their income levels in real terms have gone backwards under the Zuma administration.
Professor Bhorat calls this the “missing middle”. I call them hope for our future.
The working middle class is the backbone of any flourishing society. This class is what allows the formation of stable communities built primarily around places of education, recreation, and worship.
They are vested in the future of their children. This is the class that brought Barack Obama to power in the US. And by my calculation, they are now the biggest voting bloc in our country.
They just don’t know it yet.
But back to Zuma. He has successfully clipped Zwelinzima Vavi’s wings by getting Cosatu’s endorsement. He has wiped out the ANC youth league as a potential power broker. And he already has enough votes under his belt to not need to worry about any challengers. So he will take Mangaung and emerge stronger as a result within the organisation.
But the missing middle is gathering strength. They have moved out of Zuma’s power zones of KZN and the Eastern Cape and have become economic refugees in Gauteng and the Western Cape. Gauteng is now the most populous province in the country – and it is a province that does not support Zuma.
The ANC in Gauteng under Paul Mashatile will be reluctant to drive people to the polls in 2014 when the ANC electoral lists are populated by Zuma’s acolytes from KZN and the Eastern Cape. Neither can Zuma count upon the support of the very competent former youth league leader, Fikile Mbalula, to drive people to the polls as he did in 2009.
And what that means is that every other political party, especially the Democratic Alliance, will see their support rise dramatically in our next election, simply based on the fact that many who voted ANC in 2009 will stay away from the polls.
It won’t be enough to topple the ANC’s leadership, but it will drastically reduce their parliamentary majority, and possibly give Gauteng to the DA.
Please join me as I shout Viva Msholozi, Viva!