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Dagna
Friday, March 6th, 2009, 01:25 PM
Get used to a corrupt and chaotic South Africa. But don't write it off

South Africa is steeling itself for the most important election in the brief history of its democracy, taking place next month. With the euphoria of majority rule evaporating, will it go the dreary way towards formal one-party rule, or might it emerge as the one stable and truly constitutional big-state democracy in Africa? The question is wholly open.

As I basked in the epic view of Table Mountain, with the sun sinking gently across the world's most gloriously sited city, I could not resist the old Afrikaner cliche that this was God's own country. "Yes," replied a friend wearily, "and He is about to give us a criminal and a rapist as president. Big deal."

There is no doubt that Jacob Zuma, leader of the ruling African National Congress, will emerge next month as president of South Africa. Despite scandals, divisions, corruption and skulduggery, the ANC enjoys overwhelming voter support. After ejecting Thabo Mbeki as president last year and setting off a deep party split, Zuma has a firm hold on his party, and thus on power. South Africa will be spared the ignominy of the election fiascos in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

That is just a beginning. Zuma still faces plausible charges of bribery over a $5bn arms deal before the South African high court, which, despite his every effort of diversion and delay, have not gone away.

The chief prosecutor has been sacked and Zuma's former partner, Schabir Shaik, has been "compassionately" released from imprisonment for his (undenied) part in the deal. Zuma's hope is that, once in office, he can protect himself. But that, in turn, may require him to maintain his party's two-thirds parliamentary majority for constitutional change. That in turn could start the dismembering of South Africa's tentative safeguards on political and civil rights.

At this point, raw politics comes into play. What can curb Zuma? A splinter group from the ANC, known as Cope (Congress of the People) has just appointed an ordained minister as its leader, to emphasise the need to cleanse politics of ANC sleaze. Cope is already scoring some 15% of the non-white vote. To this would be allied the Natal-based Inkatha Freedom party, firmly in opposition to the ANC.

The former white progressives - now the Democratic Alliance under Cape Town's dynamic mayor, Helen Zille - seem likely to win the Western Cape provincial assembly, but their desperate ambition is to hold on to about 12% of the vote and ensure that a coalition of all anti-ANC groups can remove Zuma's two thirds majority.

On such mundane tactics are built the rocks of African constitutionalism. The key is not the holding of elections. It is a capacity to entrench enough pluralism and dissent to enable peaceful changes of government to take place, to render power permeable.

Despite appearances, South Africa has long been one of the few "third world" states to pass this test. Apartheid never stamped out a free press or political opposition. Its ruling oligarchy was sufficiently open that, when the time came, it negotiated its own dismantling. Under Nelson Mandela and Mbeki, the ANC was boorish and corrupt, but rarely dictatorial. When Mbeki lost the confidence of his party in 2008, it ruthlessly but constitutionally removed him.

South Africa's politicians can cas-tigate ministers. Judges can sentence, journalists can write, academics lecture and businessmen can trade without being shot or kidnapped. The finance minister, Trevor Manuel, is a respected figure, and the reserve bank has avoided the reckless negligence of its British counterpart. Despite a horrendous crime rate, this country is in no sense a failed state.

Thus all eyes turn to Zuma. To the sceptics he is the harbinger of Armageddon, whose slogan is "Bring me my machine gun"; he is a polygamous, leopardskin-draped, Zulu boss, an unschooled former terrorist, Communist sympathiser and rabble-rouser. Already his ANC youth movement is disrupting meetings of Cope, with blood-curdling slogans worthy of Robert Mugabe's thugs.

On this view, Zuma is just another African crony politician for whom power is not about government but about personal enrichment. When accused of corruption he blithely warns that, if convicted, he will "bring others down with me", a virtual confession of guilt. Under his sway the once formidable South African army is in disarray. Power generation is collapsing. How South Africa will host the soccer World Cup next year remains moot. The pledge of "No shacks by 2010" is mocked by the shanty towns growing to the perimeter of Cape Town airport.

Yet South Africa's capacity for putting the best face on the world is undimmed. To the purveyors of realpolitik, Zuma has a popular bonhomie absent from the aloof and ineffective Mbeki. He is one of the Robben Island alumni schooled by Mandela in the art of consensus. His courageous resolution of fierce tribal violence in KwaZulu-Natal in 1994 stands much to his credit.

Zuma may be of humble background but he is clearly no fool. His toppling of Mbeki was carefully planned. His selection of Kgalema Motlanthe as interim president was shrewd, as is his support for Manuel as finance minister. He follows his ANC predecessors in knowing that South Africa must keep the white business community aboard or it will die. His relaxed self-confidence is reassuring after the paranoia of Mbeki. His belief that there must be a "greater role for the state in regulating markets" is hardly extremist these days.

The courts may yet decide - and decide soon - to bring Zuma to trial on a catalogue of charges that promise to reopen the African antics of the British firm, BAE Systems. Someone is alleged to have passed him $500,000. It is then conceivable that Motlanthe might retain the presidency and South Africa plunge into civil strife, with Zuma's militant supporters pitted against the institutions of the constitution. Such an outcome would be a triumph for the rule of law, but possibly not for short-term peace and stability.

Since Zuma will shortly be in a position to forestall such a crisis by sacking those ranged against him, the constitution may have to wait on politics. Those dealing with South Africa must probably get used to Zuma's style of government, morally contaminated, administratively chaotic and corrupt. It is a country whose continued support for Zimbabwe, Iran, Sudan, Burma and China has betrayed Mandela's pledge for a "human rights-led foreign policy".

Yet I have visited South Africa for too long ever to write it off. It still reminds me of what America must have been like in the 19th century, the richest presence on its continent and a ceaseless magnet for political and economic migrants.

If the opposition can deprive Zuma of his two-thirds majority, South Africa could entrench just enough liberty to defy the pessimists. At the election after this one, an opposition might emerge coherent enough to do to Zuma what he did to Mbeki and Mandela did to Afrikanerdom. It could bring regime change in Africa, not through the bullet but the ballot box.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/mar/06/south-africa-election-simon-jenkins