Daniel Howden: Zuma - A leader paralysed by his promises


Grandstanding foreign trips are usually the cue for questions about who is in charge of a country in the absence of its elected leader. Jacob Zuma's state visit to Britain has instead prompted some in the South African media to ask if anyone is really in charge of the continent's political and economic giant, even when he's at home.

Less than a year after winning the general election, the desire among ANC supporters to make a break from the divisive era of Thabo Mbeki has left them with a different, but equally dangerous, problem. Mr Zuma built support within the ruling alliance by reaching out to diverse – and divergent interests. While this worked in propelling him to the top office, telling everyone what they want to hear is a poor strategy for running a country.

Msholozi, as he is known to his clan, trades on his warmth and everyman persona, but the broader ANC needs more than charm to resolve its apparent contradictions. Political insiders speak of paralysis at the highest level while crisis meetings are invariably resolved with each party thinking they have the backing of the leader.

Zuma leant heavily on the left in order to win the party leadership and they now expect a larger say in economic policy. This has been partly achieved by shifting the respected Trevor Manuel to a new role, but it has not gone unnoticed that the president has consulted the left without acting on their demands. In addition to the different factions within the ANC, South Africa is overseen by a tripartite alliance including the trade unions, Cosatu, and the Communist Party, which means major decisions are bound to upset one group or another.

During much of his time in office Nelson Mandela supplied the popular touch and left much of the daily business to the more economically conservative Mr Mbeki. For Mr Zuma popularity and leadership are proving hard to combine.