In less than two weeks, Jacob Zuma will be elected as South Africa’s new president. Many people see this as the beginning of the end for South African democracy, and even for South Africa as a developed country, because Zuma is an ill-educated populist who attracts criminal charges the way rotting meat attracts flies: rape, corruption, racketeering, fraud, money-laundering and tax evasion. But it may turn out to be fine despite all that.
Zuma has never faced trial on any of the charges except rape, and he was acquitted on that one. He spent six years fighting off the other charges on technical grounds — the search warrants were improper, the charges were politically motivated and so on — and in the end, the National Prosecuting Authority dropped them all. That doesn’t mean he was innocent of all the other charges; his business advisor, Schabir Sheikh, spent years in prison for similar offences connected to the same deal. But it does seem clear that the timing of the charges was politically motivated. In any case, if a little corruption on the part of the president or prime minister was enough to ruin a country, then France, Ireland, Italy and Russia would all have been reduced to anarchy.
Given his past behaviour, it is reasonable to assume that in power Zuma will only feather his nest in a modest way, or he may even decide that it has enough feathers already. A more difficult question is whether he can prevent his cronies from looting the economy to the point where investors flee.
Some of them clearly think that it will soon be “their turn to eat” (as they say in Kenya). Moreover, a high proportion of them are Zulus, whereas a majority of the first-generation leaders of the African National Congress were Xhosa: there is scope for inter-tribal hostility here. But there are also people who will urge him to keep a tight rein on that sort of thing — and one thing that you hear repeatedly from people who have had dealings with Zuma is that he knows how to listen.
More than a man
It is what any intelligent man who knows that he has an inadequate education should train himself to do, and it appears that Zuma has learned to do it. There are many senior people in the ANC who can give him the right advice if he is willing to listen, including Nelson Mandela himself, who publicly came out in support of Zuma. And if he won’t listen, the outcome of the forthcoming election may constrain his ability to do damage.
The ANC will undoubtedly win the election, but it may lose the two-thirds parliamentary majority it has enjoyed since the end of apartheid. Zuma’s ouster of Thabo Mbeki from the presidency last year led to a split in the ANC, with Mbeki’s supporters forming the new Congress of the People (Cope) to compete in this election. Together with the existing opposition parties, Cope may pull enough voters away from the ANC to deprive it of that two-thirds majority, in which case the ruling party will no longer be able to change the constitution at will. So far, it has chosen to live under the law. In the future, it may have to. Because the end of apartheid was so miraculously peaceful, people keep looking to find the dark underside of the miracle. A high crime rate, the AIDS plague and education and health-care systems that just cannot keep up with expectations are not enough; they are watching for full-spectrum failure. To be blunt, they are waiting for South Africa to go the way of “the rest of Africa.”
This is nonsense. The rest of Africa is not a monolithic failed continent, but a patchwork of more and less successful nations. Moreover, South Africa, unlike the rest, is the only fully industrialized country. Whatever happens there will be driven by a specifically South African dynamic, not by some fate that stalks all of Africa. Zuma is just a man, not Nemesis.