April 23, 2009

Zuma Already Tastes Challenges of Presidency as South Africa Votes

Jacob Zuma’s ride to South Africa’s presidency may be smooth. Retaining the support and admiration of his fanatical following while in office, however, will certainly not be as easy.

And Mr Zuma is already having a taste of the Herculean challenges that could be awaiting him, while at the helm.

Striking a balance between protecting the existing jobs and creating more, while at the same time enhancing efficiency in the South African systems, is sure to guarantee him a few sleepless nights.

With the expectations of many ordinary South Africans soaring, after what they claim to have been a decade of alienation by the Mbeki administration, the next government will be hard-pressed to guard against consigning this critical constituency to the confines of disillusionment.

A master of real politic, Zuma, while addressing international journalists in Johannesburg on the eve of the election, seemed to be taking cognisance that some things are easier promised than done.

He told his compatriots not to expect miracles…there will certainly be some gaps in service delivery in Africa’s largest economy, especially courtesy of the global economic meltdown.

On Monday Mr Zuma was forced to promise a temporary halt to the government’s implementation of the world-class Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, pending further consultations.

BRT is a government-operated mass bus travel system that would remarkably transform the face of South African public transport. The initiative involves creation of new lanes in the country’s major cities to be used by the special buses.

However, the South Africa National Taxi Council (Santaco), the equivalent of Kenya’s Matatu Owners/Welfare associations, is vehemently opposed to the BRT. Their fear, certainly not unfounded, is that the system will greatly eat into their market, rendering scores of them redundant.

Whereas South Africa is a giant economy and in a class of its own in Africa, unemployment, now at 23 per cent, remains a thorny issue. Matters are not made any better by the infiltration into South Africa by a legion of job hunters from elsewhere, especially the impoverished sub-Saharan Africa.

The first phase of BRT was due to become operational in Johannesburg, South Africa’s commercial hub, next June. The bulk of it was to be in place by the Fifa 2010 World Cup and the final phase by 2014.

The public transport operators threatened an election day strike if their concerns over BRT were not addressed. With the ANC desirous of an overwhelming poll victory, nothing could be more strategic.

The transport service providers last month went on strike over the BRT, before marching to ANC’s Luthuli House headquarters to present their memorandum.

The strike, which turned violent in some places, left thousands of commuters stranded.

Clearly, Mr Zuma, the man poised to be South Africa’s next president, and the entire ANC top brass, could not take any chances.

The ANC is targeting an overwhelming election victory that would allow it to govern without banking much on the goodwill of the rival political parties.

Mr Zuma told Santaco that it was in their interest for the ANC to garner an overwhelming victory, as this would place the ruling party in a better position to fulfill its election promises.

Transport minister Jeff Radebe, however, was more candid. “The government,” he said, “had a responsibility to provide the people of South Africa with an improved public transport system.”

But Santaco president Andrew Mthembu would hear none of it. Indeed he would be happy if the BRT plan was abandoned altogether.

“For us to meaningfully engage, let this thing come to a halt,’’ South African daily, The Star, quoted Mr Mthembu as saying.

Whether he becomes South Africa’s president or not, it would be interesting to see how long Mr Zuma blocks a noble public transport initiative to appease a single constituency.

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Zuma Already Tastes Challenges of Presidency as South Africa Votes

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