Stalked by Africa’s 15-year curse

2008-01-19 00:00

There appears to be a political equivalent to the famous seven-year itch in relationships, when an apparently happy pairing suddenly collapses. It is the African curse where, after about a decade-and-a-half, apparently thriving new democracies unexpectedly implode.

It happened in Zimbabwe 17 years after liberation, when President Robert Mugabe caved in to pressure from war veterans for a massive pensions payout and sent the currency into free-fall. Disaster followed upon disaster: illegal land seizures; the collapse of health, education and agriculture; human rights abuses; and the eventual complete subversion of the rule of law.

In Kenya, after enduring a post-colonial period as a one-party state, the first multiparty elections were held in 1992. Democracy expanded steadily and in the elections last December it was expected that the ruling Party of National Unity (PNU) would be defeated but peacefully hand over power.

Instead, the PNU rigged the result, causing an explosion of anger that soon took a nasty tribal edge. Around 700 people have been butchered, there are a quarter of a million Kenyan refugees, and civil collapse threatens.

So two of the three countries that were the greatest hope for democracy thriving in multi-ethnic sub-Saharan countries have fallen to the African curse. The third one is, of course, South Africa.

Although a similar collapse is not imminent in South Africa, after 14 almost flawless years there are real threats. The disarray and in-fighting in the African National Congress government are creating pressures that can do great harm, especially since two crucial pillars of democracy, the judiciary and the media, are targeted.

South Africa’s putative next president, unless thwarted by impending criminal charges, is Jacob Zuma. It is ironic that many in the ANC have sided with him because they are concerned by President Thabo Mbeki’s anti-democratic tendencies.

Zuma’s anger at an unfavourable press and being mercilessly lampooned for some of his stupidities — showering to avoid catching Aids, bursting into his machine-gun ditty at the drop of a hat, implicitly condoning attacks on gays and believing that a short dress is an invitation to sex — have led to a rash of defamation suits against the media.

That is not of itself a problem. It is Zuma’s constitutional right to sue and, in any case, it is unlikely that any of the actions will result in judgments that would curb the right to comment on public figures.

It does, however, show a lack of appreciation of the need for a media that is critical and irreverent. It is this ANC antipathy to democratic robustness that translates into party resolutions for a re-examination of media freedoms — albeit that the constitutional protections of a free press will most likely prevail.

But it is the persistent attacks on the judiciary that are most worrying. The democratic implosions elsewhere are unlikely to have happened if the judiciary had not first been rendered ineffectual.

Many Zuma supporters have warned that they believe their man to be the victim of a political vendetta by Mbeki and that if he is convicted, there might be riots in the streets. None of the saner minds in the Zuma camp has tried to rein-in these hotheads.

This week there was a very personal attack on Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke. Speaking at his 60th birthday party, Moseneke said he had chosen his job “very carefully”.

“I have another 10 to 12 years on the Bench and I want to use my energy to help create an equal society. It’s not what the ANC wants or what the delegates want; it is about what is good for our people.”

The ANC national working committee was critical of Moseneke’s “disdain” towards ANC members and said his comments highlighted the difficulty the judiciary “appears to have in shedding its historical leanings and political orientation”. The ANC Youth league had demanded he apologise. Some in the ANC clearly do not understand the subtle ambiguities of the Deputy Chief Justice’s words. In any case, judges are accountable to the Constitution, not political parties and the fragile egos of politicians.

To undermine the judiciary is to risk unleashing the 15-year African curse. It’s Zuma’s call, but I think he is otherwise occupied, busy having a shower.

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