Tuesday, October 21, 2008
South Africa faces an uncertain future in the aftermath of a tumultuous week that culminated in President Thabo Mbeki agreeing to step down sooner than his already announced departure date in 2009. Mbeki's decision came at the recommendation of the governing body of the African National Congress, the country's dominant political party, following a scandal surrounding his government's interference in the attempted prosecution of ANC President (and Mbeki rival) Jacob Zuma on charges of corruption. A South African judge dismissed the case against Zuma last week, prompting Mbeki's rivals within the ANC to push for his early ouster. While Mbeki ultimately agreed to go should all the constitutional protocols be followed, it would be premature to conclude that this story will end there.While the world's image of South Africa remains shaped by its peaceful post-apartheid transition, conditions on the ground suggest that the ascension of Jacob Zuma will be anything but smooth. Thabo Mbeki has had enough charisma and intelligence to maintain the flow of foreign investment into the country. But while his effectiveness as a leader has enriched many of his colleagues and supporters, the vast majority of black South Africans haven't found their lives materially improved, and it is among the latter group that Zuma draws his support.It isn't yet clear whether Mbeki's supporters will fight to hold on to the reins of power. But a glimpse of what could happen should they do so was offered last spring, when South Africa exploded in wave upon wave of xenophobic violence. Tens of thousands of foreign immigrants were displaced or forced to flee while hundreds were murdered in cold blood. These events shocked the world and made it clear that South Africa is a powder keg. A serious power struggle within the ANC might just be the spark that lights the fuse once again.To prevent such a calamity, the ANC needs to relax its grip on power and let more parties and contending voices into the political process. An alternative scenario whereby Mbeki and his supporters form a new political party could actually be a healthy development for South Africa's political landscape.Second, white South Africans -- long used to Mbeki's multiracial liberalism and for whom Zuma's aggressive populism bears a worrying resemblance to their northern neighbor, Zimbabwe -- need to be reassured that their lives and property will be protected after the change in government. Third, the wise men of the liberation movement like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu must use their legitimacy to shore up the country's political process.Lastly, the international community must accept that today's South Africa is no longer the same country that taught the world a lesson in peaceful reconciliation. It may very well need help to keep this transition from turning bloody.
Published Sept.23, World Politics Review