Not the end of the world as we know it

2009-04-11 00:00

T here hasn’t been such hysteria since the uproar around Y2K a decade ago. And one can predict that the panic about African National Congress president Jacob Zuma will prove to be as justified as it was with the Millennium Bug. Which is to say, not at all.

Contrary to the doomsayers, the world as we know it is not going to end because the fraud and corruption charges against Zuma were withdrawn. Nor will this irretrievably damage the judicial system and the rule of law. Contrary to the predictions of opposition politicians, this does not spell the imminent demise of democracy. A Zuma presidency will not of itself reduce South Africa to being just another African kleptocracy, as former president Thabo Mbeki is said to fear.

To be sure, these things might yet come to pass. They are not, though, as inevitable as the cacophony insists. Indeed, it can be argued that Zuma’s get-out-of-jail triumph could have exactly the opposite effect to what is being predicted with such confidence. It depends on what Zuma does next.

Based on the evidence in the trial of his criminal buddy and freshly paroled “terminally ill” benefactor Schabir Shaik — whose imminent death South Africa awaits with morbid curiosity but not bated breath — there was a damning case against Zuma. He and his henchmen know, despite the gloating, that he has now been vindicated as innocent, that he is damn lucky to have avoided jail.

Crime and corruption are the electorate’s greatest concerns. Yet it is one of those weird paradoxes — the Italians know them well — that Zuma will become president despite opinion surveys which show that a large percentage of voters, including ANC supporters, believe that he may be corrupt.

Forget morality. Whether it is the low-life Silvio Berlusconi or the high-minded Thabo Mbeki, politicians generally do what they think they can get away with. Both have overseen administrations characterised by corruption and cronyism. It’s about pragmatism. Given the nation’s scepticism about him, what will a canny politician like Zuma do? Loot the treasury or try to be the poster boy for good governance?

Zuma might be poorly educated but he is shrewd. The allegations, the public distrust, the desire to rise above an awful period in Zuma’s life might, ironically, give South Africa its cleanest administration since the ANC won power.

There are key indicators of which direction the wind is blowing. Some of our institutions have weathered the Zuma turmoil rather well, including the judiciary and the media.

So if Zuma introduces the threatened media tribunal or stuffs the Constitutional Court with acolytes, alarm is justified.

Similarly, if he persists in his ill-considered defamation actions against assorted newspapers and cartoonists.

Be much afraid if Zuma surrounds himself with the likes of Jackie Selebi, John Hlophe and Tony Yengeni. After all, in doing so he will then be mimicking Mbeki. By all means, don’t entrust Zuma with a two-thirds majority. A man with such poor self-control shouldn’t have the power to change the Constitution on a whim. On the other hand, if Zuma restructures the National Prosecuting Authority to put it beyond the kind of political meddling that he claims he was victim of, that would be a real improvement on the status quo.

Zuma might yet be a pleasant surprise, even if in the past his behaviour was at worst crooked, at best criminally naïve. After all, while one can sneer at his personal morality, jeer at his social conservatism, and mock his rough edges, he remains our only leader who has apologised for his mistakes.

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