In 1996 Nelson Mandela, the first president of post-apartheid South Africa, paid a state visit to Britain. People lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the 78 year-old statesman and parts of London, most memorably Brixton, came to a complete standstill. He was welcomed by the Queen and feted by the entire House of Parliament. From the press there was nothing but admiration and respect. Last week the current South African president, Jacob Zuma was also afforded the honor of a state visit. Like Mandela, he visited parliament and stayed in Buckingham palace but the warmth of his reception and his treatment by the media demonstrate just how far South Africa has slipped both in terms of political and moral leadership over the past fourteen years.
Whilst being compared with Nelson Mandela is perhaps not fair on anyone, such comparisons are inevitable both for Zuma and his unfortunate predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, who suffered the ignominy of being forced to resign by his own party, the ANC. Although Mbeki steered South Africa through over 9 years of economic prosperity he is chiefly remembered internationally for his disastrous policies on HIV/Aids and his appeasement of Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. Within South Africa he is blamed for allowing the growth within government of a culture of entitlement, cronyism and even corruption.
In the ten months since he took office, Jacob Zuma has attempted turn the page on Thabo Mbeki’s presidency. However, his attempt this week to persuade Gordon Brown to end international sanctions against Zimbabwe has opened him up to criticism that he is continuing with his predecessor’s soft attitude towards Mugabe. Zuma’s promise to tackle corruption has been tainted by his own involvement in a bribery scandal surrounding a government arms deal and his new approach to dealing with the AIDS crisis has been somewhat undermined by revelations of his own high risk sexual practices. Indeed, in South Africa Zuma is facing a storm of criticism following revelations that he had fathered a child – his 20th – to a woman who was not to one of his three wives.
Whilst Mandela was always going to be a hard act to follow corruption scandals, failures in leadership and policy mistakes have had a damaging toll on the once untarnished reputation of the ANC and led talk of a crisis in leadership. Janey Halim, an ANC activist who was part of the official committee that welcomed Nelson Mandela as he emerged from prison 20 years ago, cut up her ANC membership card following Mbeki’s resignation. “There is so much greed, corruption and incompetence in the ANC nowadays” she says. “I feel that my years of struggle have gone down the drain.” Halim’s sentiments reflect a widespread sense of disillusionment among many people at the perceived slowness of change in South Africa. One in four South African’s is unemployed and crime rates are among the highest in the world. Over a million people still live in shacks and over 5 million South Africans are infected with HIV and AIDS.
Whilst acknowledging the criticisms, ANC stalwart Mac Maharaj points out that South Africa’s transformation has nevertheless been miraculous. “In 16 years South Africa has achieved far more that other comparable post-independent countries such as India or Nigeria over the same time period” he argues. Although things are far from perfect South Africa has experienced 17 years of sustained economic growth which the global recession was only able to suspend for nine months. There has been a dramatic expansion in access to housing, electricity and water together with a burgeoning black middle class. South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world supported by an independent judiciary and a free press.
Questions of governance are nonetheless being raised in a democracy which, due to the ANC’s popularity, is a de facto one-party state. The ANC’s historic role as liberator led by heroes such as Mandela mean that it still enjoys massive popular support. With over 65% of the popular vote, support for the ANC shows little sign of abating despite recent attempts to set up rival alliances and break-away parties. And yet for a healthy democracy to flourish, strong opposition parties are needed in order to provide essential checks and balances. The absence of a credible political alternative is also resulting in a damaging growth of political apathy in a population that was once among the most politicised in the world.
Susan Rabkin, special adviser to the Minister of Defense, does not believe that there is a crisis in leadership but acknowledges that the shoes left by the old guard are proving difficult to fill. “Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu all had such integrity that the ANC was lifted to great heights under their leadership” she recalls. Whilst the ANC can never be the same party as the one that swept to victory in 1994 and Zuma can never be a Mandela, South Africa is a strong democracy born of a painful past which is gradually coming to terms with the difficult realities of politics.