In December 2012, the African National Congress (ANC) will decide whether to re-appoint its president, Jacob Zuma. Since the Republic of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, the ANC President has, ex officio, been the president of the country; such is the party’s electoral dominance, a dominance that withstands the system of proportional representation, which discourages political majorities. It would be extraordinary to see Zuma fail to be re-appointed; but would this be deserved? This article will examine Zuma’s record in his first three years as president.

Four years ago, when Zuma was first chosen as the ANC’s next president, it was easily the most controversial political moment in the history of the new South Africa. While the international press focused on his personal life—he is an avowed polygamist, and has been charged with rape—the more potent concerns about Zuma came from the South African and international business community. Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, Zuma’s predecessors, successfully balanced the demands from their party’s left-wing for radical social change with the needs of business, earning South Africa a reputation as Africa’s economic powerhouse. Yet despite steady growth and disciplined fiscal policies, Zuma inherited an economy with an unemployment rate of 25 percent, inequality, high levels of crime, and low levels of education. As Zuma had consistently voiced populist and socialist rhetoric before assuming office, many feared he would take the South African economy in a radically different direction.

Three years later, it is clear that the initial fears about Jacob Zuma as an economic radical were unfounded. Whatever his prior views, as president, he has essentially been a pragmatist. In response to criticism from the left, Mbeki had largely abandoned the privatization campaign of his first term, and Zuma has not resumed it. But at the same time, there has been none of the sort of nationalization of private corporations that many business leaders feared Zuma might initiate. His finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, and his head of planning, Trevor Manuel (finance minister from 1996-2009), have ensured fiscal prudence, with budget deficits contained to less than 5 percent of GDP. This has granted South Africa considerable credibility in capital markets, allowing it to borrow at rates that are favorable compared to those offered to other countries of a similar profile.

While largely, this represents continuity from previous administrations, Zuma does deserve credit for South Africa’s disciplined economic policies. The perception that Thabo Mbeki was excessively pro-business was a major factor in bringing down his reign in 2008, and Zuma has continually faced pressure from the ANC left.

This last year, he had a showdown with Julius Malema, erstwhile president of the ANC youth wing and Zuma’s own protégé, which showcased the president’s commitment to his economic course and served to burnish his credibility. Malema, the ANC’s most visibly radical voice—he is an unstinting supporter of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and has called for the wholesale expropriation of assets owned by South Africa’s whites—had proposed the nationalization of South Africa’s mining industry, arguing that this immensely successful industry only benefits a tiny white elite. Zuma immediately sought to reassure mining companies that under no circumstances would this be carried out, and acted decisively and ruthlessly to suspend Malema from the party for serial indiscipline.

Zuma’s conduct in the Malema affair has served to establish him as a leader who is willing to take serious political risks to ensure stability. But the success Malema has enjoyed is representative of the profound economic and social problems that continue to plague South Africa, problems into which Zuma’s government has made only limited inroads. Unemployment remains the central concern, and in 2012, economists forecast that South Africa will grow at less than 3 percent, a rate insufficient to create enough jobs for the growing population. The weak rand, the unit of South African currency, has fuelled inflation of over 6 percent, and while Zuma acknowledges that the private sector is the primary job creator, and talks of creating a “thriving mixed economy,” he will continue to face those on the left who propose a radical economic restructuring in the interests of fairness. Zuma may have proved his initial doubters wrong, but his South Africa has been far from an economic miracle.

This darker side to South Africa’s economic and social development was highlighted most starkly by the massacre in Marikana on August 16, 2012. Police fired on a group of wildcat striking miners, killing 34 and injuring 78 others. It was a mindless and horrific act, evoking comparisons to the 1960 Sharpeville massacre—the single crime most widely associated with the old apartheid state. Apart from indicating the potential for uncontrolled state violence in Zuma’s South Africa, the Marikana tragedy pointed to deeper social fissures. The policy of “black economic empowerment” has created a tiny black elite without delivering anything for the majority of South Africans. On some measures, income inequality has actually increased since the end of apartheid – a stunning indictment of the 18 years of ANC rule.

Even if his stewardship of the economy can be considered a relative success—at least relative to expectations—Zuma’s administration has been lacking in several other aspects. The cronyism and political corruption that had become rampant in the Mbeki era have shown no sign of abating under Zuma. The new black elite is composed primarily of ANC associates like Malema, who amass vast wealth and spend it on flashy cars and heavily-protected mansions. Corruption charges against Zuma himself were dropped shortly after he assumed the presidency in 2009, and he came under fire last year for appointing a personal friend and ally to be chair of the government’s anti-corruption agency.

Even more troubling is the proposed Protection of Information Bill, which was passed by the lower house of Parliament in November 2011 and may have been signed into law by the time you read this.

Ostensibly designed to prevent corruption, the bill is, in fact, utterly contrary to the principles of the ANC as outlined by earlier leaders such as Mandela, and if signed into law, threatens to delegitimize South Africa’s status as a liberal democracy. It severely limits the ability of the press to publish information critical of the government, most notably by effectively preventing the press from investigating corruption. Zuma’s failure to come out against this dangerous piece of legislation is a low point of his presidency.

Zuma’s challengers in the December ANC election are likely to include supporters of Malema. By side-lining Malema and, by extension, the radical wing of the ANC, he has ensured a relative level of stability and reassured business leaders. In comparison with his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, he has been a resolute campaigner on the issue of HIV/AIDS. But he has scarcely made any progress in the key area of unemployment, South Africa’s greatest economic challenge. And he has made no attempt to block the creeping authoritarianism that may yet undermine liberal democracy. Does Jacob Zuma deserve to be re-appointed? Yes–if only because the ANC has not thrown up any better alternative, and as frightening as it might be to contemplate the prospect, we now know that this party can do far worse.