Despite Zuma

2009-04-13 00:00

In less than two weeks (22 April), Jacob Zuma will be elected as South Africa’s new president. Many people see this as the beginning of the end for South African democracy, and even for South Africa as a developed country, because Zuma is an ill-educated populist who attracts criminal charges the way rotting meat attracts flies: rape, corruption, racketeering, fraud, money-laundering and tax evasion. But it may be all right despite all that.

Zuma has never faced trial on any of the charges except rape, and he was acquitted on that one. He spent about six years fighting off the other charges on technical grounds — the search warrants were improper, the charges were politically motivated, etc. — and in the end, last week, the National Prosecuting Authority dropped them all.

That doesn’t mean he was innocent of all the other charges; his business adviser, Schabir Shaik, was sentenced to years in prison for similar offences connected to the same deal. But it does seem clear that the timing of the charges, at least, was politically motivated — and in any case, if a little corruption on the part of the president or prime minister was enough to ruin a country, then France, Ireland, Italy and Russia would all have been reduced to anarchy in the past decade.

There’s a limit to how much corruption a country can take before it becomes utterly dysfunctional, of course. But though many senior members of the African National Congress have prospered mightily since the end of apartheid 15 years ago, the corruption in South Africa has remained limited enough that both the economy and democracy have survived.

Indeed, the ANC has been no more corrupt, and much less tribal in the division of the spoils, than was the ruling party of the apartheid era, the old National Party. The worst failures of the past decade were due not to corruption but to the poor leadership of former president Thabo Mbeki, who put insufficient emphasis on health and education and allowed hundreds of thousands of South Africans to die needlessly because of his obsession with non-medical “alternative” treatments for HIV/Aids. Will Zuma do worse — or might he even do better?

Given his past behaviour, it is reasonable to assume that in power Jacob Zuma will only feather his nest in a modest way, or he may even decide that it has enough feathers already. A more difficult question is whether he can prevent his cronies from looting the economy to the point where investors flee.

Some of them clearly think that it will soon be “their turn to eat” (as they say in Kenya). Moreover, a high proportion of them are Zulus, whereas a majority of the ANC’s first-generation leaders were Xhosa: there is scope for inter-tribal hostility here. But there are also people who will urge him forcefully to keep a tight rein on that sort of thing — and one thing that you hear again and again from people who have had dealings with Zuma is that he knows how to listen.

It is what any intelligent man who knows that he has an inadequate education should train himself to do, and it appears that Zuma has learned to do it. There are many senior people in the ANC who can give him the right advice if he is willing to listen, including Nelson Mandela himself, who publicly came out in support of Zuma in mid-February. And if he won’t listen, the outcome of the forthcoming election may anyway constrain his ability to do damage.

The ANC will undoubtedly win the election, but it may lose the two-thirds parliamentary majority it has enjoyed since the end of apartheid. Zuma’s ouster of Thabo Mbeki from the presidency last year led to a split in the ANC, with Mbeki’s supporters forming the new Congress of the People (Cope) to compete in this election.

Together with the existing opposition parties, Cope may pull enough voters away from the ANC to deprive it of that two-thirds majority, in which case the ruling party will no longer be able to change the constitution at will. So far, it has chosen to live under the law. In the future, it may have to.

Because the end of apartheid in South Africa was so unexpectedly and even miraculously peaceful, people keep looking to find the dark underside of the miracle. A high crime rate, the Aids plague, and education and health-care systems that just cannot keep up with expectations are not enough; they are watching for full-spectrum failure. To be blunt, they are waiting for South Africa to go the way of “the rest of Africa.”

This is nonsense. The rest of Africa is not a monolithic failed continent, but a patchwork of more and less successful states, all of them labouring under great handicaps. Moreover, South Africa is unlike any of the rest, in the sense that it is the only fully industrialised country on the continent. Whatever happens there will be driven by a specifically South African dynamic, not by some Fate that stalks all of Africa. And Zuma is just a man, not Nemesis.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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