Quick quiz question: 2006, 2008, 2009 — What do these three years have in common in South Africa?

These were years when the public at-large, the middle classes, the bourgeoisie, the media, the establishment, or whatever else you might call it, started paying attention, if momentarily to poor people. In those three years major instances of often violent protests erupted in townships and slums throughout the country.

Unfortunately for poor people, and for the greater understanding of everyone involved, the reasons for these demonstrations have often gotten lost in a fiery haze. In 2008, the protests took the form of xenophobic attacks on foreign-born store owners and other migrants living in South Africa.

Such violence was clearly reprehensible. It also gave middle classes an excuse to ignore the valid frustrations of poor people whose frustrations boiled over in a particularly disgusting way. Instead of being ashamed in its complicity with a system that deprives the poor, toiling in sewage-ridden, shack-filled, unsafe and unfit slums, the middle class could rest on its outraged high horse. How dare South Africans attack others simply for not being South African?

Such sentiments are all well and good, but they also smack of willful ignorance. The violence in places like Alexandra last year was not fundamentally about hatred of foreigners. The acts of hatred were symptomatic of a greater frustration with the lack of progress in many townships. Based on my interviews with a number of shack-dwelling residents of Alex over the past four months (and I will grant the limits of this kind of anecdotal evidence), a discussion of foreigners is always accompanied by the larger issue of the general state of living in the township. “How can all these foreigners come here when things are already so out of control?” “We can’t get any jobs. Why can they get jobs?”

The frustration is not so much with foreigners, as the overall state of living. So witness the protests in Thokoza and Balfour this past week as the latest example of protests that appear to have hit closer to the mark in terms of public perception. This, despite worrying instances of xenophobic attacks attached to the demonstrations. “Service delivery” is once again the name of the game.

I interviewed Udesh Pillay, an expert on “service delivery” at the Human Sciences Research Council. He points out that the ongoing protests have their roots not in xenophobia, but in the more fundamental struggle for human dignity in the 1980s against apartheid. Many of the protests of this time focused on specific issues like rent prices and utility services, while aiming to “render ungovernable” townships throughout the country.

In the case of apartheid, the government could not respond because it was born of a system that was inherently illegitimate. Now, the government has been elected through legitimate means, but does not have the structures that will allow for constructive engagement with communities. Democracy does not end with elections. Community engagement with elected officials is the real nuts and bolts of democracy, a way for the will of the people to be heard and developed in the public sphere.

“Service delivery,” Pillay told me, is then a stand-in phrase for the greater lack of accountability that currently exists in slum governance. I would argue that it is this lack of accountability that is totally anathema to the middle-class-driven public debate on this issue. The assumption is much more cynical, and anti-democratic. They elected Zuma and the ANC. This is what they get. Why are they so violent and xenophobic? Why are their leaders so incompetent?

In order to move forward, such questions need to be replaced by those informed by a more democratic point of view. How can communities engage consistently and constructively with local government? This is an issue that has never been practiced well in South Africa. The apartheid government enacted policies concerning the overwhelmingly black poor without consultation, and in the democratic era little has changed in many townships.

Currently up for debate is why the government is not implementing their policies properly. Instead the questions need to be about how the policies are developed in the first place. The likelihood of proper implementation would then be much closer behind.

I don’t have scientific evidence to back this up, but I’m beginning to feel like some market research out there shows South African magazine operators that putting a picture of Jacob Zuma on the cover of your magazine will sell more copies.

If not, could someone then please explain what he’s doing on the cover of this week’s Financial Mail flanked by the blaring headline, “How long can Zuma last?” Jeez. The man’s only had two weeks worth of his presidential rooibos tea and he’s already a lame duck?

Needless to say, I was both curious and, admittedly, skeptical as to what this could all mean. Were there secret rumblings of the party preparing to take him out a la Mbeki? Is he ill? Is Baleka Mbete so pissed that she didn’t get the deputy presidency that she’s now decided to upstage Msholozi in a fashion coup? It’s colorful dresses and headgear versus designer suits … my more outlandish instincts give the battle to Mbete, but, as court cases go so do more sartorial struggles. Zuma: siyanqoba!

Actually, it turns out that there are no rumors of anything. Merely writer Ken Owen surmising from far-off France about how the ANC’s internal deliberations in Luthuli House are opaque. The rest of the article and the accompanying features by other writers don’t deal with these non-existent rumors at all (maybe because they are, in fact, non-existent) and veer towards the FM’s forte. Exceptionally strong analysis of the problems facing policy makers, and policy proposals that tend towards a hard-line liberalism (in the economic sense) only slightly tempered by the generally left orientation of South Africa (when ruling party rallies are punctuated by renditions of, “My father was a garden boy, my mother was a kitchen girl, that’s why I’m a communist,” you know you’re not in Kansas anymore).

There’s been a bit of a talk of the lack of honeymoon for Zuma. Witness DA leader Helen Zille’s ridiculous attacks (followed by the ANC Youth League’s perhaps even more absurd retorts), and the hysterical naysaying by some financial commentators over the weekend on the Vodacom / ICASA / COSATU near-debacle. Still, this FM cover almost takes the cake. Especially given that the accompanying article doesn’t justify the cover’s implications at all.

In fact, this is a perfect example of why not to use question marks in headlines. Here are some examples. Is Barack Obama a Muslim? No. Is Julius Malema just Hendrik Verwoerd back from the dead? Uh … no. How long will it take for Schabir Shaik to die? How long can Zuma last? I wouldn’t be surprised if the former’s death were not so imminent, and I also have no doubt that South Africa’s comeback kid will be sipping his pleasantly bitter presidential tea much longer than this kind of premature naysaying might imply.

I don’t want to make a habit of criticizing every foreign report about South Africa that gets something wrong, but an occasional missive in the subject area seems reasonable, no? There are some overused, unuseful tropes that Westerners use in their reports on almost anywhere in Africa. Douglas Foster’s profile of Jacob Zuma in the new issue of The Atlantic trucks in a few of these.

On the whole, the piece does a better job than many of explaining Zuma’s backstory, as well as some of the political machinations of the ANC that led to Zuma’s rise. I do think that in terms of this political intrigue he does readers a disservice by treading lightly on Thabo Mbeki’s role in much of the controversy that has surrounded Zuma. For instance, in Foster’s depiction, Mbeki avoided a constitutional crisis by accepting the ANC’s decision to recall him from the presidency. Mbeki created the potential for a different kind of institutional, if not constitutional crisis, by standing for the party’s presidency to begin with (let alone his clear political meddling in the pursuit of the corruption case against Zuma).

What struck me beyond the political analysis contained within the piece, which generally toes the Western “what does it mean for business? / who is this uncouth singing, dancing, tribal polygamist?” line, is his insistence on physical description as a substitute for hard analysis about this highly compelling political figure. Take for instance this second introductory paragraph:

Zuma is a large-boned man with a shaved, bullet-shaped head. He carries himself in the loose-limbed manner of a natural politician, and the edges of his mouth regularly turn up in a Mona Lisa smile, as if he’s just remembered an old joke. His cheeks are full and his skin unlined; he looks far younger than his 67 years. Tinted wire-rimmed glasses shade his heavy-lidded eyes, so it’s hard to know when he’s pulling your leg, or getting angry at the drift of your questions.

Okay, maybe a little physical description is helpful. I don’t have the print edition, but maybe there wasn’t room enough for a good picture to allow readers to size up the man. Maybe the description of his smile tells us something about his character. Otherwise, what do his “large bones,” “bullet-shaped head,” and “full cheeks” tell us except that he’s a big, fat black man? I’m surprised that a later reference to his “reptilian” facial features (and “cold-blooded” determination) didn’t slip into something more “elephantine.” Somehow I doubt that the second paragraph of a major feature on Barack Obama (recall the outcry when Joe Biden so tactfully reminded us was so “clean and articulate” … for a black man) or really any major Western leader would be so consumed with physical description.

Let’s give Foster the benefit of the doubt here. I’ll admit, Zuma does have a unique physical presence. Still, what does that have to do with his charm offensive to American businessmen last year — especially as it’s portrayed in this article?:

South Africa needed “balance,” he said, pushing his belly into the table. The economy would continue to require active intervention because the market still hadn’t corrected for historic patterns of race and class bias.

What?! I think I’ll leave that one stand on its own. “Pushing his belly into the table”? I’m no expert on body language, but the greater implications of that physical description are lost on me besides perhaps juxtaposing the image of, again, a big, fat, black man in a board room with the civilized U.S. bankers. I am left wondering, though, how Zuma got pegged as the fat guy in a room full of Wall Street “fat cats.” Ba-dum-chuh.

I admit, that on its own this criticism may appear frivolous. What is not frivolous is that this kind of crude reliance on physical descriptions is accompanied by an unwillingness to engage with the obvious infrapolitics of the ANC, and their implications during the election. Foster has a reasonable explanation of the Polokwane conference, clearly a watershed moment in post-1994 South African politics. So then why is he left so mystified at the end of the article?

When his dance was done, Zuma shimmied down the gangway, hands up and palms outstretched, lofted along by the cheers. He and his traveling companions quickly slid into a motorcade of luxury SUVs and BMW sedans. Sirens wailing, they zipped off. The woman with the large cross now had it wedged awkwardly beneath her arm. It struck me that her hero hadn’t explained to her why the ANC government had bungled the fight against AIDS or failed to create widespread opportunities for economic mobility.

For many South Africans, the answer is obvious. The Mbeki cohort within the ANC was gone. The grassroots of the party threw out the bums at Polokwane, the view goes. You don’t have to agree with the result to understand that this past election was not irrational. There were clear reasons — of policy, politics, and personality — why Zuma won. For international journalists, especially those with the access that Foster clearly had in writing this article, to omit to explain these to their readers is a disservice. To waste so much time on crude physical description is a failure.

Two (related) ways that township life reflects the day’s headlines = two of my recent video reports for The Times:

Expectations for a Zuma presidency in Alex

Continuing horror of last year’s xenophobic attacks

Not much is going on at the IEC, with election results only being finalized tomorrow. The ANC is currently on the razor’s edge of a two-thirds majority, but we’ll see how it turns out. I ran into an electoral observer from Burundi last night who told me that from the viewpoint of other officials in his government (he is the interior minister, I think — I had a little trouble with his accent, as we were speaking in French), this election is more about the legacy of the ANC in South Africa than Jacob Zuma. This is an interesting point of view, given that Zuma was a major mediator in Burundi in the mid-90s.

I attended two briefings by the Southern African Development Community and African Union electoral observer missions today. Both groups had much praise and little criticism for South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission:

Hailing the South African election as an example to the rest of the continent, observers from the African Union and Southern African Development Community noted what they perceived as only minor glitches in the process during back-to-back briefings today.

Long queues, the issue of voting in an area where one is not registered, and the “display of party identities” and campaigning at polling stations, were issues cited by both groups as deserving review by South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission.

The murder of one COPE official in the Eastern Cape was of concern, but did not diminish the overall success of the election, said Salim Ahmed Salim, former Prime Minister of Tanzania and leader of the AU observer mission. “In our opinion, in any election you are bound to find incidents of this nature.”

Radio Botswana’s head of current affairs Sakaeyo Jannie wondered if the SADC mission was too quick to praise the results. “Have you ever not declared an election free and fair?” he asked mission leader Balefie Tsie, a professor of political science at University of Botswana.

Tsie noted that SADC had refrained from issuing a comment during last June’s run-off election in Zimbabwe, which was marred by politically motivated violence.

The mission leader proposed that the IEC use transparent voting boxes so as to avoid confusion about whether a ballot box was full or not. He also praised the media for having upheld a more metaphorically transparent political campaign.

Read the rest here.

Only hours to go until a truly historic day in this young country. No matter how it turns out, this election, the wounds it has exposed, and the promises it holds will reverberate for a long time to come. I have been privileged to witness two elections of great historical magnitude — this one with a different kind of front row seat — in such a short period of time. I can only hope that I continue to be under the spell of that old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

I will likely be away from blogging during the next few days, as I will be doing a lot of actual work while election results filter out. For now, read on to see some pictures that I’ve taken over the last month or so of the campaign.

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There are very few polls that come out here, leading to a lot of uncertainty about where the electorate actually stands. Of course, the question is not whether the ANC will win a simple majority – that’s a foregone conclusion – but if it will get the two-thirds majority that would theoretically allow the party to make changes to the constitution.

It’s too bad that it’s near-impossible to know exactly how likely this is. Of the polling data that does come out, there is little on which one can rely. Newspapers almost uniformly report what surveys do exist as a statement of fact, rather than a statement of probability, and the polls themselves often use questionable methodology. This extends to the questions asked to the cross-tabs used to analyze the data — what is the use of breaking things down by race, when one category is %80 of the population? — to reporting margins of error, sample sizes, and sample breakdowns.

On the other hand, there are some things that seem to be common to many of the most recent polls. The ANC generally gets in the mid-60s, while COPE and DA are closer to between 10 and 15 percent. I spoke to a number of political and media analysts earlier today to get their pre-election prognostications (less than 48 hours to go!). Unsurprisingly, no one can predict for sure whether the ANC will make DA leader Helen Zille’s worst nightmares come true, but no one is ruling it out.

You can find my article and a series of audio interviews here.

Of course, I’d be remiss in not even mentioning the ANC’s “Siyanqoba” (translation: we are winning) rally in Johannesburg yesterday, where I worked reporting from about 6:30 in the morning. As is now well known, Nelson Mandela made a surprise appearance. Of course, this was not a surprise for me. I accurately predicted this to my father, my skeptical editor, AND the twitter-verse, somehow making a pre-rally best-of-SA twitter roundup at breakingtweets.

Anyway, enough of the self-congratulation (one of the cardinal sins journalists commit everyday — I promise my critique of media in this election is coming). I co-produced a fun video documenting the rally. I have to say that I laughed when I saw how star-struck all the media — both domestic and foreign — was by Mandela’s appearance. Fighting through a crowd of journalists trying to catch a glimpse of Madiba on one camera for work and another for themselves was quite a scene. I can’t say I was entirely immune to the hysteria, but, come on. Probably the earliest vague memory in my life is sitting with my parents watching the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour the day F.W. de Klerk announced his release from prison release. Or some part of the prison release. Like I said, it’s a vague memory.

I sometimes hear people say that South Africa needs its own Obama. Please. You want a charismatic redemptive figure on which to throw all your hopes and dreams? South Africa has the prototype. Nelson Mandela. Madiba. Heard of him?

Insofar as people vote for the ANC because of Jacob Zuma in this election, it’s basically because he is seen as a man of the people. He has little formal education, and spent his twenties in jail at Robben Island, only to emerge as a key intelligence official for the ANC-in-exile during the anti-Apartheid struggle. He can sing, dance, and is conversant in traditional Zulu customs, probably to a fault (saying a Zulu man is duty-bound to have sex with a woman who is the slightest bit suggestive is a bit much). None of the other major candidates can really hold a candle to this populist narrative.

But is Zuma really a populist? He has an obscenely huge motorcade, multiple fancy houses, and don’t tell me you haven’t noticed the fancy suits he wears to press conferences and court dates. In fact, the whole reason Schabir Shaik was giving him money in the first place was because Zuma wasn’t making enough money to support his newly opulent post-struggle lifestyle. So while the nation’s poor languish in poverty, Zuma has been striking it rich on the dime of his questionable associates and the taxpayer. Corruption? Feh. Elitism? Now that’s a charge that might carry a bit more weight if character assassination is the way to go. And the sad truth is that character assasination can often be quite effective no matter where the political games are going down.

Somehow I just don’t see that happening with this crop of opposition leaders. Across the board, they live similarly rarified lifestyles — botox injections, multiple houses, fancy cars, etc — and are too singularly obsessed with convicting Zuma legally that they lose sight of how to obtain a conviction in the court of public opinion.

So then who is the model for a leader in South Africa? I think the clearest example is Lula da Silva of Brazil. Like Zuma, he has little formal education. He also had great trade union leadership credentials (a “struggle” of its own), and ran on a populist platform of cleaning up a notoriously corrupt government, reasonably specific economic proposals, and a compelling message of national purpose. In theory this is not so different from Zuma. Still the way I remember the first Lula campaign, as I observed it from the United States, was that there was a lot more policy heft in the run-up to his eventual presidency. He talked about the Washington Consensus, its pitfalls, income inequality and poverty with the facility of someone who has both seen and understood the lives of everyday people and is conversant in policy prescriptions that convincingly address those experiences.

Zuma is convincing in his identification with the rural poor. After all, the man from Nkandla grew up in reasonably typical rural poverty. But what are his policy prescriptions? Beyond “we can do more” on basically all fronts, how can someone even argue with what he is saying? If Zuma can come up with creative policies that address his own lived experience, then he might even be the transformative kind of president that Lula has been to Brazil. I think this country is still waiting for much of that policy heft.

In the meantime, it might be time for people to give up yearning after Obama (and god knows I’m always down for some Obama love).

Now that the NPA has dropped the government’s corruption charges against Msholozi aka JZ aka Jacob Zuma, I’m nursing a fascination with the whole “Umshini Wami” phenomenon. The song is from the ANC’s days in exile, and was a song of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). “Umshini Wami” roughly translated means “bring me my machine gun,” and the song is Zuma’s near-official theme song. Crowds have sung it at ANC rallies, after his acquittal on rape charges, and the last couple of days since the NPA gave up his prosecution. I heard it for the first time when I followed a group of ANC volunteers going door to door in the Klipspruit area of Soweto.

Mosuia Lekota, leader of the opposition COPE party, referred to it in his initial announcement of the party’s break from the ANC late last year. Regardless of his chiding of Zuma for continuing to sing the song, its popularity appears to have not abated. I went searching for some videos of the song, and this video from the key Polokwane conference in 2007 seems to tell the tale of how it all went down that fateful December. Thabo Mbeki looks a potent mix of disgusted and crestfallen. Zuma is thrilled with himself. Strangely, Lekota, standing by Mbeki’s side, appears to be enjoying the spectacle as well. Maybe he’s just laughing at it instead of with it.

Without even beginning to judge the man in terms of his worthiness for the office of president, Zuma’s credentials as a performer are strong in this mesmerizing rendition of the anthem. He seems reluctant initially to sing along with the crowd, but soon launches into the song with full energy, waving his arms around his head as though he has been totally overtaken by the tune. As I joked to a friend recently, if I could vote, I may or may not choose to vote for him, but I would definitely be first in line at the record store if he released an album.

Amid all the uproar over the National Prosecuting Authority’s decision to drop charges against Jacob Zuma, it’s worth noting that state prosecutorial cronyism is not the unique domain of South Africa. The U.S. recently exhibited similar tendencies, and ended up with a similar result. Former Alaska senator Ted Stevens was convicted of corruption shortly before last November’s election. Recently, though, the charges were dropped due to claims that the federal prosecutor’s office mishandled the case. Stevens lost his re-election bid, though he very well may have lost had he not been convicted at the time. Like Zuma, the facts still seemed quite damning whether or not he was convicted in a court or not. Perhaps the main difference is that in the Stevens case, the U.S. government appears to have suppressed evidence, whereas the Zuma case was more a matter of interference in the general protocol and procedure of the prosecution. You can listen to my interview with political analyst Adam Habib about the NPA decision here.

Anyway, to those who think this is an example of South Africa “going to the dogs” or, as the more timely lament goes, “the way of Mugabe,” it’s helpful to remember that long-established democracies still encounter similar situations to that currently facing the South African legal structure. Then again, who am I to say the U.S. isn’t also going to the dogs.

Don’t tell that to my man Bob Dylan. He is characteristically — and wonderfully — out of his gourd in this new interview. He seems positively smitten with Barack Obama.

He’s got an interesting background. He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real. First off, his mother was a Kansas girl. Never lived in Kansas though, but with deep roots. You know, like Kansas bloody Kansas. John Brown the insurrectionist. Jesse James and Quantrill. Bushwhackers, Guerillas. Wizard of Oz Kansas. I think Barack has Jefferson Davis back there in his ancestry someplace. And then his father. An African intellectual. Bantu, Masai, Griot type heritage – cattle raiders, lion killers. I mean it’s just so incongruous that these two people would meet and fall in love. You kind of get past that though. And then you’re into his story. Like an odyssey except in reverse.

Way to just come up with words that refer to almost every different region of Africa, Bob. Later he muses on Obama’s literary abilities in Dreams From My Father:

His writing style hits you on more than one level. It makes you feel and think at the same time and that is hard to do. He says profoundly outrageous things. He’s looking at a shrunken head inside of a glass case in some museum with a bunch of other people and he’s wondering if any of these people realize that they could be looking at one of their ancestors.

Then Dylan puts on his Jewish mother hat and second-guesses Obama’s latest career choice:

In some sense you would think being in the business of politics would be the last thing that this man would want to do. I think he had a job as an investment banker on Wall Street for a second – selling German bonds. But he probably could’ve done anything. If you read his book, you’ll know that the political world came to him. It was there to be had.

You can also hear the Obama-ified “I Feel A Change Coming On” at the same link as the interview.