President Jacob Zuma. Picture: MARTIN RHODES
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

AT THE end of last year, two very different groups of people came from out of the blue to exercise power in SA’s political life. They could not be more different from one another, and in the dissimilar ways they exercise power lies an important story.

The first is a bunch of people who know neither one another nor SA. They are scattered across a handful of cities in the developed world. All they share is a line of work — they are bond and currency traders. A minority of them will have set foot in Africa, most as tourists staying in fine hotels. Quite a few probably know that Jacob Zuma is president, but the rest is just so much detail for them.

One Sunday late last year, the fear of what these people might do next galvanised SA’s political and economic elite into frantic action. To avert the mayhem that would unfold when trading was to begin the following morning, the trajectory of a country’s Treasury was turned around, literally overnight. A basket case in the making was now run by a seasoned technocrat, unfireable and with some freedom to act.

Compare this with the other group of people who emerged late last year to exercise a lot of power: university students. They had to toil like Hercules to achieve what they did. It took an age to prepare; year after year of increasing talk of Steve Biko and Franz Fanon, the discursive soil slowly being tilled, the thought gradually planted that one can take on the African National Congress (ANC).

And then the sheer gift of a 10% fee hike, unplanned for, unforecast, but enough finally to galvanise sufficient solidarity for nationwide action.

What has this mountain of work achieved? It’s hard to tell. The story hasn’t really unfolded. Money will be shuffled from one place to another to placate this and that demand. Institutions will be part-battered, part-renewed. All we can really know is that the story will be messy.

So, on the one hand, an icily efficient exercise of power wielded by faraway people; on the other, sons and daughters of the soil whose power is blunt, unwieldy and near impossible to aim.

There are all sorts of places to take this thought, but space constrains me to choose one. The day that he fired Nhlanhla Nene, Zuma gave an extraordinary speech in which he raced through hundreds of years of history. The common thread was that Africans get messed around: first slavery, then colonialism and now this insidious, slippery new world in which Africans are only nominally free.

For the very words we use, Zuma suggested, including the simplest propositions — like that prices are determined by supply and demand — are chosen for us by people who are not friends.

What hits home is the depth of Zuma’s conviction that he speaks from the periphery, not just in relation to global forces, but in relation to the ANC itself.

I have never had the privilege of discussing the world with Zuma, but I imagine that he would concur with the description of asymmetrical power above. I would guess he thinks that the leadership of his party spent a Sunday last December holding him to ransom on behalf of a powerful enemy, and that he’s disgusted by the thought.

When Zuma was vying for power, it was said that he was leading a coalition of the wounded. But as the coalition fell apart and just the core remained, what came to light was a cultural divide deep inside the ANC.

Zuma’s is a coalition of those who feel provincial, those who feel that the technocrats who ran SA under Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki are the agents of a cruel global centre.

It is often said that Zuma has no principles, but I find this hard to believe. He represents a broad swathe of people from across small-town and rural SA, people who feel what he feels in the depths of their bones: that it is right for those on the margins to play rough and dirty for they have no other weapons; that the likes of Nene and Pravin Gordhan are alien impositions. Whatever Zuma’s fate, the battle lines he has drawn will not go away.

• Steinberg teaches African studies at Oxford University and is a visiting professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research