On April 6, South African prosecutors dropped all corruption charges against the country's president-in-waiting, African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma. With elections coming this week, skeptics saw the move as a sign that the courts had been cowed by a demagogic strongman and that the country's fragile democracy was crumbling.
There are plenty of reasons to fear a Zuma presidency: he surrounds himself with followers who vow to kill on his behalf, threatens to diminish the role of the constitutional court, has been linked to a corrupt financial adviser and once declared that he was able to ward off AIDS from a woman he was accused of raping by taking a shower. This is a far cry from the days of Nelson Mandela, when South Africa's leader commanded the respect of the world.
Zuma also seems unable to articulate a clear vision. He tells each constituency what it wants to hear: township dwellers will get running water and new homes; bankers can expect a steady flow of foreign investment; and the Afrikaners (against whom he once waged war) are the only "true" white South Africans.
The fact that the ANC split late last year, with many leaders leaving for a new party, the Congress of the People (COPE), has further worried investors, who fear that the highly regarded finance minister, Trevor Manuel, and central bank governor, Tito Mboweni, might leave office if Zuma wins, prompting massive capital flight. Some critics fear South Africa could go the way of Zimbabwe, crippled by economic mismanagement, hyperinflation and tyrannical government.
All of these fears are overblown. South Africa's future depends not only on its leader but on the constraints he faces and on the strength of its political culture and institutions. Zuma can't rule as he wishes: he will likely have to break his populist promises to the poor, for example, because the global financial crisis has squeezed the economy, and the government can't finance more debt. At the same time, South Africa is doing relatively well compared to other emerging markets, and Zuma won't jeopardize this by jettisoning the personnel and policies that have made it the free-market business hub of the continent, argues economist Raymond Parsons.
Then there's the ANC, which has generally shown a commitment to the rule of law. For years, it has had the votes to change the Constitution without opposition support but hasn't done so. Instead of moving to disenfranchise South Africans living abroad"”who tend to back the opposition"”the ANC allowed them to vote in the April 22 election. And it has respected oversight bodies such as the Human Rights Commission, the Public Protector and the Commission for Gender Equality.
The ANC has also shown respect for a free, critical press. Almost all major publications bluntly criticize the party and its leaders. Yet the ANC has not used heavy-handed tactics to silence them. Such tolerance is all too rare in Africa.
These traditions should check Zuma's worst impulses once in office. So should the fact that, while an ANC victory in the election is guaranteed, the rise of COPE could mean the ANC gets less than 60 percent of the vote, which would force it to reinvent itself. Like every other African liberation movement, the ANC has struggled to transform itself into a genuine political party. During the fight against apartheid, it was organized autocratically. Yet parliamentary democracy is now forcing yesterday's liberation fighters to accept robust and open disagreement within the ranks. Meanwhile, the fear of losing more popular support should lead them to reject irrational policies like former president Thabo Mbeki's pathetically slow rollout of vital AIDS-fighting drugs.
Even the courts' recent decision to drop the charges against Zuma may have been a sign of strength, not weakness. After all, the decision was made after prosecutors recently uncovered clear evidence that Mbeki loyalists had meddled in the investigation to try to derail the career of Zuma, his great rival. This meddling irrevocably tainted the case against Zuma, despite credible evidence of corruption. Many advanced democracies punish such prosecutorial misconduct in order to ensure procedural fairness.
South Africa is still on track to becoming a stable, liberal democracy"”and likely to resist a single, possibly corrupt, demagogic politician. While the ANC itself is not yet fully democratic, it does accept and respect the institutions that make up the country's political landscape. Independent bodies, opposition parties, constitutional norms and a free and feisty press keep the nation's rulers in line. South Africa's next president may be no Mandela. But South Africa won't let him become another Robert Mugabe.
Polakow-Suransky is an associate editor at Foreign Affairs. McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Johannesburg.
What a joke. Does this writer even understand the third world? Zuma take power and just be another typical African dictator. With the likes of Malema behind him, SA will rapidly degenerate into another Zimbabwe. Didn't Mugabe come in democratically? Africa isn't like the West where institutions are respected.Take the US for example. There are those that can't believe that a black man is the president of the US, but they will give him respect not for his own sake, but for the sake of the institution that is the US Presidency. Africa isn't like that. African despots take advantage of institutions and then turn around to abuse those same institutions that brought them into power. I'm willing to bet that Zuma will attempt to change the SA constitution so that he'd be able to run for multiple or unlimited terms. The man is a buffoon and an incompetent idiot. Mbeki with all his flaws is a 1000 times better than Zuma.Zuma is the nail on the coffin that marks SA's transition from 1st world to 3rd world.
I respect the writer of this article, Sasha. However I disagree totally that South Africa will have any say as to how Zuma controls the country. Zuma had his charges dropped by paying off those that wished to prosecute him - that is how things are done in South Africa. There is nothing that the country can do to stop Zuma from controlling the country as he so wishes. South may survive Zuma, but I have grave fears that not every resident of the country will have the same fate.Anyone that believes that everything will be rosy under the rule of dictator Zuma is either blind or is wearing blinkers and cannot, or will not, face the truth. For the benefit of those loved ones in my family who still live in South Africa, I hope that things are not as bad as i fear, but I don't hold out much hope for the overall well-being of many current South Africans.
I respect the writer of this article. However, I disagree with the ending summary that South Africa won't let Zuma become another Mugabe. I believe that South Africa won't have any say in the matter. Zuma got his prosecutions dropped because he paid off those making charges against him - that is the way things are done in South Africa these days. He will also always ensure that he remains in power by using force and violent control techniques. Any person that cannot see this is obviously wearing blinkers and does not want to see the truth or accept it.
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