Mandela’s Fading Dream

Democracy

It was the diplomatic equivalent of the age-old admonishment “I’m glad your father didn’t live to see this…”  Last month Archbishop Desmond Tutu told The Guardian he was glad that at age 91, modern South Africa’s Founding Father Nelson Mandela was retired and not following day-to-day politics in his country anymore because if he was “issues such as corruption would certainly hurt him, as well as the gutter level of discourse by some politicians within the ruling party [Mandela’s own African National Congress].”  Tutu went on to say that Mandela would be troubled by the “high level of corruption that has plagued us since we gained our democracy,” adding that “poverty, health issues such as HIV and AIDS, inadequate service delivery and lack of balanced discourse are some of the issues that would worry Mandela.”

One week into the 2010 World Cup, South Africa has so far managed to successfully (and depending on your opinion of vuvuzelas, somewhat maddeningly) stage an international sporting event, arguably second only to the Olympics in terms of size and prestige.  And just as Beijing intended the 2008 Summer Games to show China’s “arrival” as a First World nation, the government in South Africa hopes hosting this year’s World Cup will send a similar message about their country’s rise as a regional power and the ability of the entire continent to shake off the chaos that marked the immediate post-Colonial era and meet the amazing promise the future could hold for Africa as a whole.  South Africa is increasingly being seen as a leader in this new African century, an image likely to be reinforced by the World Cup.  But Tutu’s comments point to a different promise that is increasingly going unfulfilled: that a democratic, multi-cultural nation could rise from the ashes of the state-sponsored racism of the Apartheid-era, launched by the political prisoner-turned-statesman, Nelson Mandela.  In reality, South Africa’s post-Apartheid political space has been dominated by the powerful African National Congress, which since Mandela’s retirement in 1999, has been guided by a series of increasingly poor leaders who have done little to tackle South Africa’s endemic problems with corruption and crime.  Leading up to the event, writer/filmmaker Rian Malan speculated that one reason the ANC leadership was so supportive of the World Cup idea was because of all the kickbacks they expected to receive from construction and operations firms that would build and run the venues.

The current leader of both the ANC and South African government is Jacob Zuma, a man with a past that would have doomed a politician in most other democracies.  Zuma faced a years-long corruption trial alleging he sold his position within the ANC hierarchy to favorably influence a massive arms deal to supply the South African Navy.  The case was eventually dropped on a technicality, though Zuma’s critics insist the prosecutor’s office was pressured to end the case four years after its start.  While the corruption case was working its way through the courts, Zuma was also charged with raping a woman from a prominent ANC family.  Just to add to the controversy, the alleged victim was HIV-positive; Zuma would later anger local HIV/AIDS healthcare advocates (HIV/AIDS is a major health problem in Sub-Saharan Africa) by saying he kept himself from contracting the disease by taking a shower afterwards. Zuma was supported throughout the trial by the ANC’s Youth League (more on them later); he was eventually found not guilty when the court ruled that the sex between Zuma and his accuser was “consensual.”  Zuma is also a polygamist.  Although polygamy is legal in South Africa, the incessant fighting within Zuma’s current stable of wives is regular tabloid fodder, and even though he currently has three wives (down from five), some of Zuma’s 20 known children are also said to be illegitimate.  Yet despite all this, Zuma managed to take over the leadership of the ANC in 2007 and was elected president in 2009. 

It’s no blot against a nation though to have a morally challenged president.  Corruption, crime and the kind of backroom dealing that allowed Jacob Zuma to take over as head of the ANC though are all signs that South Africa is failing the test of good governance at home; they are also failing it in the realm of foreign affairs as well.  Following the disputed 2008 presidential elections in neighboring Zimbabwe – when supporters of incumbent President Robert Mugabe intimidated challenger Morgan Tsvangirai into leaving the runoff portion of the election, despite his falling just shy of a clear majority in the opening round of voting – it was suggested that South Africa, which supplies a major portion of Zimbabwe’s electricity and port facilities for the landlocked nation, could exert pressure on Mugabe to step aside.  Yet South Africa’s ANC leadership preferred to view Mugabe as a kinsman in the struggle against colonialism for his leadership during the 1970s rather than as the despot he has become today.  An emergency arms shipment bound for the Mugabe regime (likely to be used against supporters of Tsvangirai’s MDC party as part of the post-election intimidation process) was blocked not by the South African government, but rather by striking dockworkers who refused to become accomplices in the oppression of people seeking democracy in Zimbabwe.  In the end South Africa led negotiations for a power-sharing deal between the two men, which Mugabe began undermining almost immediately.

But rather than condemn the Mugabe regime for failing to live up to their end of the bargain, South Africa has continued relations with them.  Even more worrisome, the Zuma-led ANC appears to be looking towards Zimbabwe for advice in instituting a land redistribution scheme in South Africa.  A decade ago, Mugabe instituted a series of “land reforms” that on the surface were designed to transfer ownership of vast tracts of farmland from the nation’s small minority white population to the large landless black underclass.  In practice, white farmers were often violently thrown off their land, which was then given not to black farmers, but to Mugabe’s political cronies who in turn let the fields go fallow.  In the space of a decade, Zimbabwe went from being the “breadbasket of Southern Africa” to a state on the edge of starvation with the world’s worst rate of inflation.  And this is the model of economic reform now apparently preferred by the ANC…

Leading the ANC’s Zimbabwe mission is a man by the name of Julius Malema, head of the aforementioned ANC Youth League.  While in Harare, Malema was spotted singing the Apartheid-era protest song “Kill the Boer” [Boers are the white descendants of South Africa’s colonial founders].  This was at the same time noted South African White Supremacist Eugene Terre’Blanche was found murdered on his farm, killed by two black farmhands apparently over a wage dispute.  Given the racial strife that could have followed the murder of perhaps the best-known living South African White Supremacist, Malema’s choice of song was needlessly reckless at best.  At a press conference following the event Malema went further, verbally attacked a BBC reporter who questioned his choice of song – calling the reporter a “bastard” and a “bloody agent” of the “imperialists”, before throwing him out of the press conference entirely.  Malema added that he had learned from Zimbabwe’s land reform program and promised to keep fighting for the emancipation of black Africans – though much of the World Cup-inspired reportage from South Africa point to the high levels of corruption within the government as a major factor in keeping the nation’s black population in poverty.

“Rainbow nation” is a term you’ll hear a lot during the World Cup coverage, referring to South Africa’s future as a true, multicultural state.  Sadly, while the World Cup shows us the promise of Africa’s future; today’s South Africa seems in danger of sliding into the well-worn patterns of patronage and poor governance that have plagued so many of the continent’s states for far too long. 

Development, Post-Colonialism, South Africa, Zimbabwe, World Cup