There is good and bad news from South Africa. The good news is that the ruling party, the African National Congress, had its first wide-open and competitive election to choose a new leader. The bad news is that the winner is Jacob Zuma, an uneducated populist given to violent rhetoric (at campaign rallies he sings a catchy ditty called, “Bring me my machine gun”). With this victory, Zuma becomes a shoo-in for the Presidency. Zuma was fired as Deputy President over charges of corruption, and still faces trial over those allegations. He has beaten charges of rape in the past (his defense was that the woman was asking for it by wearing a short skirt in his house). It is almost as if Huey Long had become the Democratic Party Presidential nominee in the 1930′s, except that democracy in South Africa is much newer and more fragile than it was in America at the time.
The incumbent President and ANC leader, Thabo Mbeki, has hardly had an unimpeachable tenure. As my fellow contentions blogger Jamie Kirchick has pointed out, he has been guilty of not paying enough attention to AIDS or to human-rights abuses next door in Zimbabwe. But he has been a model of economic stewardship, eschewing the ANC’s Marxist rhetoric in favor of sound fiscal management. Despite pressure from his party’s base, he has not moved to punish whites or to dispossess them of their farms and businesses. Instead, he has continued the reconciliation policies of Nelson Mandela, one of the great men of the 20th century. In the process, Mbeki has made his country a model of democracy and economic growth on a continent that badly needs some success stories.
The concern now is that Zuma could undo Mbeki’s legacy, the worst case being that he could turn into another out-of-control tyrant like Robert Mugabe. Such concerns seem overblown, at least for the moment. Zuma has been promising business leaders that he will not depart too radically from Mbeki’s pro-business policies. More importantly, although South Africa has a fairly anemic, if vocal, opposition party, it does have some robust checks and balances from an independent press and judiciary. The latter may wind up being the country’s salvation. If Zuma is convicted in a pending bribery case, he would be ineligible to serve as President, and a more moderate ANC leader might emerge to succeed Mbeki.