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The Atlantic Philanthropies in South Africa: Some Reflections on the First 100 Days of the Zuma Government

Resource type: News

Gerald Kraak |

This week Gerald Kraak, Programme Executive with Atlantic’s Reconciliation & Human Rights Programme and a veteran South African human rights advocate based in our Johannesburg office, shares his thoughts on the first 100 days of President Zuma’s administration.


While international coverage of the April election of Jacob Zuma as President of South Africa has much of the time focused on previous charges against him of rape and corruption and raised questions about whether his campaign acted outside the rule of law, this negative coverage is in contrast to the reaction within South Africa itself – he was elected by a hefty 65% and many are hopeful that his administration will bring much needed change. How can perceptions be so polarised and where does the truth lie? The short answer is: it’s complicated, and while many Atlantic grantees are optimistic, some are concerned.

Zuma’s victory was driven by a wave of dissatisfaction with his predecessor, President Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki brought economic growth to an ailing economy and created a substantial black middle class. But, while his supporters may disagree, there is a widely-held perception that Mbeki did not deliver adequate services to the country’s poor and failed to address glaring inequalities.

Though Zuma’s victory was overwhelming, a significant minority was opposed to the African National Congress (ANC). Moreover, discontent over inadequate services to the poor persists. Since his election, in more than thirty towns throughout South Africa there have been recent, and sometimes violent, protests and strikes against government’s failures to deliver enough housing, electricity, sanitation, clean drinking water, adequate health services, and jobs.

There is plenty of skepticism about the Zuma administration’s ability to keep its pledge to improve service delivery. On top of that, many thought Zuma’s actions during the campaign were dubious, when he resorted to the emotions of populism to bolster support. He suggested a referendum to reinstate the death penalty to tackle crime, spoke out against homosexuals and women, and appealed to Zulu nationalism to secure support in Kwa-Zulu Natal. These activities raised questions about Zuma’s commitment to human rights and democracy.

But, since the election some of these concerns have dissipated. In his first 100 days, Zuma and his colleagues have re-stated their commitment to democracy and constitutionalism. In contrast to the autocratic style of the Mbeki administration, Zuma has appointed several panels of advisors. Commentators note his willingness to engage and listen to others, including those who disagree with him. Many Atlantic grantees remark on the openness of new cabinet ministers and public servants to consultation and advice.

Overall, there is cautious optimism in the country at the way in which government is adopting and implementing policy. The cabinet is probably the most experienced and potentially most competent cabinet since the advent of democracy in 1994, with real potential to deliver. Many of the cabinet appointments have been positive for Atlantic’s work and grantees in South Africa.

A new Ministry of Economic Development has been created, which will concentrate on developing South Africa’s previously neglected informal economy.

The new Minister of Heath Aaron Motsoaledi has held several portfolios, including education and health in Limpopo, the country’s second poorest province. Most importantly, upon taking office Motsoaledi, a physician, established new programmes to combat HIV/AIDS. This built on the work of the former Minister Barbara Hogan, who declared the ‘end of AIDS denialism’ last year.

Like Hogan, Motsoaledi was quick to seek the advice of the Treatment Action Campaign and the AIDS Law Project, Atlantic grantees, who campaigned to make anti-retroviral drugs available through the public health system. The Minister also moved quickly to revive the National AIDS Council – the government agency charged with coordinating a response to HIV/AIDS in which Atlantic grantees actively participate.

There have also been policy reforms that are directly connected to Atlantic’s Population Health Programme, which is committed to increasing the number of nurses as part of its strategy to strengthen the public health system. Over the past 18 months, Atlantic has invested more than RND 70 million in university nursing education departments, nursing colleges and policy research to inform the education of nursing in the future. The new Minister for Higher Education, Blade Mzimande, has come out with noteworthy policy pronouncements – notably to strength vocational education through the reintroduction of apprenticeships and the reopening of technical colleges, as ways of redressing the country’s chronic skills shortages. The Minister has also committed to re-opening nursing colleges to increase the output of nurses.

A key objective of Atlantic’s Reconciliation & Human Rights Programme has to support pilot projects that socially re-integrate ex-combatants who fought in the armed formations of the former liberation movements. While the Mbeki administration did little on this front, the National Peace Accord Trust, an Atlantic grantee, has worked closely to ensure that the Zuma administration meets the needs of this constituency. Encouragingly, the Ministry of Defence has been reconstituted as the Ministry of Defence and Veteran’s Affairs. The inclusion of veterans’ affairs means that the needs of ex-combatants may finally be addressed.

Atlantic’s Reconciliation & Human Rights Programme has supported a rights-based approach to alleviate rural poverty, including advocacy by groups such as the Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies and the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute. This issue did not get a lot of traction during the Mbeki administration, which left rural livelihoods to market forces that largely favoured urbanisation and industrialisation. But the newly created Ministry for Rural Development and Land Reform is a strong indication that the government is serious about addressing rural poverty systemically.

Finally, the Zuma administration is open to implementing a subsidy to help alleviate poverty in the country as advocated by the Black Sash and other Atlantic grantees.

These are, of course, only some of the policy changes which may help strengthen the impact of Atlantic’s investments in South Africa.

While these cabinet appointments have inspired confidence that the administration is on the right track in some areas, the jury is still out on whether it will respect constitutionalism and human rights. Given this, it remains important to continue to strengthen civil society. Atlantic is committed to support institutions and organisations, such as the newly launched Council to Advance the Constitution, that seek to protect the constitution from populist attacks. Atlantic sees this as an area for increased investment in the future.

It would be too easy to look at these events from only one perspective – either focused too sharply on the negative charges brought against Zuma and the threats to constitutionalism or focussed solely on the promise of the new administration to narrow the gap between the newly rich and the very poor. The new South African reality is more complicated than either scenario. The election has brought about a necessary correction of some of Mbeki’s policies, but it has not guaranteed the flourishing of democracy based on the most progressive constitution in the world. The country has weathered another change in leadership, and Atlantic’s grantees are working to make most of new opportunities and to guard against potential dangers.

Gerald Kraak



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