There are reasons to be cheerful

2009-04-28 00:00

South Africa is standing at a crossroads — and faces its most serious test since the end of white rule.

This is the view of Alec Russell, author of the book After Mandela: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa.

However, Russell says it is not all doom and gloom for South Africa.

In an interview with The Witness, the award-winning writer says that while there is considerable uncertainty over which direction the country will take, not everybody watching from outside has a “monolithically negative” view of incoming president Jacob Zuma.

Despite current uncertainties, Russell believes that if Zuma does “what he says he is going to do” he could be seen as an even better president than former president Thabo Mbeki. He might even appoint a better cabinet than Mbeki did. “But, given Zuma’s track record, there are huge uncertainties.”

The author, who spent five years as a foreign correspondent in South Africa for the Daily Telegraph from 1993, believes that, given the current political climate, in five years’ time, people will be “more charitable” about Mbeki than they have been to date.

On Zuma, Russell believes strongly that he will never become one of the “big men” of Africa like Robert Mugabe or Mobutu. “Whatever he does, he won’t become either of those figures.”

Elaborating on possible scenarios under Zuma, Russell describes him as an “amazingly charming man, who is delightful to spend time with and who is funny, self-deprecating, witty and unassuming”.

One scenario, he says, is that Zuma could become a president in the mould of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan — a man who leaves the governing to the technocrats and becomes merely the “smiling face” of his government.

Another scenario is that Zuma could be a president who continues to “play to the gallery” — a charismatic populist leader who, through his charm, succeeds in masking the horrors, such as increasing poverty, of his governance.

“I think he will be a mixture of both those scenarios,” says Russell.

“I would like to see the Reagan scenario. But you have to be an optimist to imagine the Reagan scenario through and through — because I am not sure who the technocrats are. Even if that is his objective, he might not pull it off. He may play a Reagan character, but I am not sure he has the people beneath him who can do the governing.”

One trend to watch for with concern, says Russell, is the trend in some countries when political problems are increasing and the economy is in trouble, to try to divert attention by inflating the expectations of the people and by encouraging a personality cult.

Russell believes that the greatest grounds for concern over a Zuma presidency is that it might develop something of a “vacuum” in leadership. “Even if he wants to do lots, he won’t be able to — partly because the ruling party is tearing itself apart and partly because Zuma is not equipped to do so as a leader.”

Russell’s book aims to paint a picture of South Africa since the end of white rule and to show where it is now.

He often asks himself whether, as a foreign correspondent in South Africa, he and other correspondents were not “a bit too uncritical” of Mbeki.

The one-time “cheerleader” for Mbeki now concedes that, as the crises of Aids, crime and Zimbabwe unfolded, Mbeki gradually lost his allure. “It wore off more quickly in South Africa than it did internationally. Maybe the perception that he’s a huge thinker is overgrown. What he is good at doing is bamboozling people with insights. He is a learned man but he doesn’t necessarily make a great president or thinker.”

Russell believes that the real tragedy of Mbeki’s presidency was the people who didn’t get ARVs and the Zimbabwean people. “But there is one way his political obituary will improve — and that is if Zuma is a disaster. If that happens, then people will start reassessing Mbeki. Perhaps they will say, yes, his Aids policy and his policy on Zimbabwe were disasters, but he ran a steady ship and he managed the economy.”

Russell learnt in his work as a foreign correspondent that journalists should hold politicians to account “from their very first day in office”.

“What happened in South Africa after 1994 was that we didn’t want to see the dream die. We gave the ANC a longer rein than we should have done.”

He believes that the way South African newspapers and opposition parties have risen to the challenge of holding government to account is one of the inspiring aspects of the recent era.

So, where does the hope lie in the months and years ahead?

“The hope lies in the large number of good people in the ANC who haven’t turned to making money in business and who haven’t lost sight of what government is about. The hope lies in them reasserting themselves.

“The hope also lies in the fact that while the political landscape is pretty troubled, there are all sorts of really interesting, important and encouraging initiatives unfolding, such as private and community enterprises.

“Whether these community initiatives and the idealism of some in the ANC can yank the party back, I don’t know. But there are still some very good people in the ANC.”

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