Cry, The Beloved Country

by James Kirchick | April 16, 2009

This morning, I attended a panel at the CATO Institute entitled, "Left Turn? South Africa after the Election." The referendum in question is the country's fourth general election since the end of apartheid, and will take place next Wednesday. As with every election in South Africa since 1994, there is little question about which party will win, and win big: The African National Congress of Nelson Mandela, now led by the far less reassuring figure of Jacob Zuma.

I've written about Zuma before, most recently here and here. For a colorful -- and somewhat more dispiriting profile -- see Peter Hitchens's dispatch in last weekend's Sunday Mail. To put it bluntly: Zuma is a disaster waiting to happen, and one can only hope that South Africa's resilient people, civil society and private industrial sector will keep the country afloat while he's in power. Contrast the near-lack of concern about what's about to happen in South Africa next week with the recent Israeli elections. That there can be endless agonizing about how Israel's new conservative government -- with its "racist" foreign minister -- will give the Obama administration  headaches, while few people seem to care that the economic engine and political anchor of the African continent is about to be helmed by a demagogue, crook and accused rapist, implies that there exists a double-standard in how we discuss Israel in relation to other nations, that Africa is a mere blip on Washington's radar screen, or both.

Present at the panel this morning were Karol Boudreaux of the libertarian Mercatus Center, Bush administration Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Tom Woods, and Welile Nhlapo, South Africa's Ambassador to Washington. Interesting observations were made by all, but what was noticeable about the conversation was what wasn't discussed: the man who will be installed as president next week and what his presidency will mean for South Africa's future. When I posed this question to the ambassador -- specifically in the context of Zuma's voluminous ethical problems and serious questions about his fitness for office -- he responded that "it would be a mistake to base bilateral relations on the strength and weaknesses of individuals." It can be hoped that the relationship between South Africa and the United States, based upon shared values of democracy and pluralism, will survive the vicissitudes of individual presidential administrations. Yet the election of Zuma is part of a disturbing pattern in South African politics, and seems to be part of a deliberate policy on the part of the ANC to move further and further away from the United States and Western Europe and into the arms of countries like China, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela. The most recent example of this approach was the decision by the South African government to deny a visa to the Dalai Lhama, a move taken to appease Beijing.

But after making this perfectly fair point, Nhlapo became accusatory. He said that to oppose the impending election of Jacob Zuma indicates a belief that "the majority of the [South African] people -- that there's something wrong with them. ...You can't have so many people making so fundamental mistake." Well, yes you can. Electoral credentials do not automatically confer a reputation of respect for liberal government and the institutions that sustain it. The popular election of Illiberal demagogues has occurred throughout history and well into the present day (see Hugo Chavez) and the phenomenon is more acute in countries with huge wealth disparities and where a large proportion of the population is uneducated, South Africa being a fitting example. But personalizing purely political issues seems to be a habit of South Africa's man in Washington. When asked by a reporter from the Voice of America if the country's astoundingly high crime rate, deteriorating education system, increasing corruption, and many other social problems, constantly characterized by the South African government as a set of continuing "challenges," should instead be referred to as "failures," Nhlapo responded that such a charge "has to do with me personally." He felt it necessary to remind his audience that he had been born in 1948, the year the National Party came to power and that the country was still dealing with the scars of its past.

It goes without saying that the legacy of apartheid effects contemporary South Africa. But dredging up past injustices whenever the slightest criticism is registered about its present performance has become a crutch for the ANC. It is 15 years now that the party has been in power (and near-unchallenged power at that; it domiantes 70% of parliament) and it has very little good to show for it. Instead, we've seen the ANC thoroughly politicize state institutions, prop up a bloodthirsty dictator in Zimbabwe, and implement a HIV-AIDS policy that can only be described as insane and criminal. Now, they have chosen as their leader a man who sings a song entitled "Bring Me My Machine Gun" at political rallies and claimed that he had protected himself from infection after having intercourse with a woman he knew to be HIV-positive by taking a shower afterwards. If the South African Ambassador doesn't understand why people might have legitimate concerns about the state of affairs in his country, perhaps he should find a new line of work.

--James Kirchick

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