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It's not the ANC of Mandela anymore

October 20, 2008|Mark Gevisser | Mark Gevisser, a South African journalist, is the author of "A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream," to be published in the United States in the spring.

JOHANNESBURG — Jacob zuma, the leader of South Africa's African National Congress, is in the United States this week to meet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others. He arrives having just won a political battle that led to former President Thabo Mbeki's downfall and to the near-certainty of Zuma becoming the country's president next year.

How different things are today from that morning almost exactly 18 years ago, when tens of thousands of Americans lined the streets of New York to greet Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie, on a triumphant victory parade; when Mandela's ANC was a moral beacon that inspired ordinary people all over the world.

Now, as the 90-year-old Mandela recedes into the twilight, his country is just another troubled developing democracy suffering from a deepening recession and a plummeting currency. Now, too, no one holds any illusions that the ANC is a cathedral of morality. Rather, it has been revealed as a rowdy town hall of competing interests, grubby with politics; a mess of factionalism, cynical self-interest and vituperative litigation. In short: a modern political party. Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that other icon of the struggle, has declared his disgust and said he will not vote in the upcoming elections.

The most recent evidence of all this was the ousting of Mbeki by his own party in September. Mbeki was Mandela's de facto prime minister before he became president himself in 1999; he is responsible for the political and economic stability that characterized the last decade, even if it was accompanied by unacceptably high unemployment and crime rates and a suicidal denial of the severity of the AIDS epidemic. Mbeki, a complex and somewhat tragic figure, also stood accused of not tolerating political dissent and of using the organs of the state to fight his own political battles.

One of these battles appears to have been against his deputy president, Zuma -- a longtime comrade in the freedom struggle and subsequently in government with whom he fell out. After Zuma was implicated in a corruption case in 2005, Mbeki fired him. Zuma, who was subsequently charged, believed that there was a political conspiracy against him; in September, a judge seemed to agree and threw his case out of court. This gave the ANC the grounds to "recall" and replace Mbeki with a caretaker president, Kgalema Motlanthe. Everyone expects that Zuma will be elected president in next year's elections.

Mbeki's program for the transformation of South African society was called "black economic empowerment" -- aggressive affirmative action and the transfer of assets to well-connected members of the black majority. This benefited the black middle class, which grew exponentially, but so did the gap between rich blacks and poor ones. Zuma, a charismatic populist, has exploited this, managing to cast himself as the representative of all those who feel excluded from the banquet of victory.

Although the highly educated Mbeki is a descendant of the class of "black Englishmen" who have run the ANC since it was founded a century ago, Zuma is the unschooled rural son of a domestic worker. He is also a traditionalist from the Zulu tribe, with several wives and allegedly about 20 children; when he was charged with rape last year (he was acquitted), the sexism of his defense shocked progressive South Africans, as did his willingness to let a mob of supporters run wild outside the court.

The architects of Zuma's victory over Mbeki are the ANC's left-wing allies -- communists and trade unionists -- who feel that Mbeki betrayed the ANC's roots with his "neo-liberal" policies of fiscal austerity and with his focus on the black middle class. Zuma has no discernible ideology -- he is one of those politicians who is all things to all people -- and he will go out of his way this week to tell his American hosts that South Africa's economic policies will remain unchanged. His leftist supporters, however, see payback time: They embrace deficit spending and would like to see the nationalization of key industries. Perhaps not surprisingly, none of them are in his delegation to the U.S. this week.

Zuma has debts, too, to the businessmen who have been bankrolling him through his legal travails, and one of his big challenges will be to forge compromise among all the people to whom he has made promises. Already, he has shown himself to be unequal to the task: In the interests of stability, he wanted Mbeki to see out his term, which was to have expired next April anyway. But Zuma was overruled by his hotheaded supporters, driven by the heady power of a putsch.

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