William Gumede: South Africa is about to fall to a master of self-reinvention

In spite of a dismal record, Jacob Zuma and the ruling African National Congress will win today's elections, voted in by most of the poor black South Africans for whom little has changed since the country first became democratic in 1994. These failures in government have left most black South Africans still living in appalling poverty, joblessness and homelessness. So how did it come to this?

Until 2005 Zuma (and most of the current ANC leadership) were closely aligned to the failing administration of former President Thabo Mbeki. Then Zuma was fired as deputy president of the country for corruption. Yet the brilliance of his campaign is that he has, in the perception of many poorer black South Africans, managed to successfully disassociate himself from the failures of the Mbeki government.

Zuma has portrayed the ANC as an almost different party altogether, reinventing it as supposedly more "pro-poor" and "democratic", and less "corrupt" – the victors in an epic battle against the "corrupt", pro-business, black middle-class and "pro-white" wing of the ANC as represented by Mbeki.

In doing so, Zuma has tapped into a dramatic change in the mood of South Africa's poor black majority, living in despair in sprawling shanty towns across the country. This group, forgotten by the élite, have now run out of patience, and are demanding the economic dividends of the democracy. For them democracy without its economic fruits is rightly hollow, and this has been at the heart of spontaneous violent protests by poorer black communities against government failure the past few years.

As a "champion" of the poor, meanwhile, Zuma spends more than a million rands a month on his personal security. Of course as the first person to rise to power who has not come from a middle-class background, he is seen as an inspiration, and people have overlooked comments he has made such as that he can see by the way a woman sits that she is looking for sex; that a shower after having unprotected sex with an HIV/Aids infected person can cure one from getting infected; that criminals are granted too much by way of human rights.

Meanwhile in the campaign to drop the corruption charges against Zuma, the ANC leadership have closed down the crack anti-crime unit that brought the charges without consulting parliament, which should have decided the issue. Zuma has daily attacked critical media and judges who ruled against him, last week saying that the country's highest court, the Constitutional Court, is "not God".

In this campaign Zuma has raised expectations among the poor to fever pitch. There have been a lot of promises of new policies and institutions, but little detail, let alone a timetable of when promises will be delivered or the costing of programmes. Not even the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Zuma's ally, has pegged their support to him to meet targets.

South Africa is about to face the full brunt of the global financial crisis. Its economy is likely to lose at least 300,000 jobs this year. Zuma will take over an economy in decline after an almost decade-long boom, with economic growth averaging 5 per cent the past five years. Economic growth dropped to 1.2 per cent this year and is likely to plunge further. Yet neither the ANC nor the opposition parties have proposed any remedies with timeframes on how to tackle the problem.

Zuma is unlikely to have the honeymoon period that previous ANC governments had. If he does not deliver, the poor will turn against him as viciously as he ousted Mbeki. In 2005, members of a poor black township called Khutsong burnt down government buildings, attacked local ANC politicians – who they accused of failing them – in scenes reminiscent of the 1980s apartheid South Africa when black communities in the townships protested government neglect.

There are going to be Khutsongs all over South Africa if Zuma does not deliver immediately. How he responds to such pressure in an economic downturn will determine the future of South Africa. Mbeki did not mind using state institutions to crush such dissent. Zuma's supporters hope and pray he won't do the same or worse. The omens are not good: not yet in power, Zuma has copied many of the bad things of the Mbeki era that he has distanced himself from.

William Gumede is author of 'Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC'