Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

South Africa: A Big Man on the Crest of the Wave

Posted in African Politics, South Africa by ruben eberlein on May 28, 2009

My latest contribution to Konkret (June 2009) offers an analysis of the election results in South Africa. The magazine from Hamburg will be on sale tomorrow. Read some English excerpts here or download the original German article as pdf.

ancelection Jacob Zuma expressed himself quite contradictorily with regards to his own and the ANC’s mission. While, before the elections, he was quoted as saying that the ANC will rule South Africa ‘until Judgement Day’, his victory speech emphasised reconciliation between the political opponents. ‘We congratulate all opposition parties on a hard fought election campaign. Now, we must work together and unite our people’, he said. A very different bell was struck by Julius Malema, president of the ANC Youth League, in mid-2008 as he informed the public that – in light of the court cases against Zuma – he is ‘prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma’. Only after being called off by the subject of his admiration, the young hotspur restrained his demonstrations of deference.

The continuing strength of the ANC, besides its history in the liberation struggle, is also owed to the weaknesses of opposition parties. The smaller ones of them were the biggest losers of that election. But the influence of the two most important opponents of the ANC – the Democratic Alliance and Cope – remains very restricted as well. ‘Opposition parties are yet to adapt to the reality that during elections, the power in South Africa lies with the poor. And thus their party images will have to be transformed to reflect this if they are to make in-roads among this demographic in future elections’, comments Justin Sylvester of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) vis-à-vis KONKRET.

Helen Zille, the DA leader and darling of the German press, didn’t pass a microphone and a camera without stating that Zuma is a ‘one-man constitution-wrecking machine’ and that democracy in South Africa would be finished with him as president. In an article for the German Welt am Sonntag she even accused the ANC to practice ‘an ethnic or racist nationalism’.

A lot of discussions in course of the last months dealt with a possible shift in the political culture of South Africa that might be generated by the takeover of the self-confessed polygamist who occasionally likes to dress in a leopard’s skin. Rising corruption, favouritism and a sometimes ineffective administration are reasons for some observers to suggest that the country at the Cape could take a similar road like other former settler colonies. In countries like Kenya, Zimbabwe or Malawi, patrimonial logics penetrated the colonial structures in such a way that the official institutions of post-colonialism turned out to be empty shells soon.

No doubt about it: Ethnic and racial identities, allegiances within the wider family vis-à-vis the Big Man and the informal networks of power built on them play an important role in South Africa’s political life – most pronounced certainly on the local level. It is this point which poses the biggest challenge for the country in the coming years. The problem of African states, argues political scientist and Africa specialist Patrick Chabal, ‘lies less in the inherent corruption of political leadership in Africa – however acute that might be – than in the systemic contradictions inherent in the translation of the local ethics of public virtue into a more coherent, national and long-term vision of the public good.’ Chabal explicitly excludes South Africa from the analysis in his commendable book Africa – The Politics of Suffering and Smiling, but arguably nowhere on the continent this central insight is more timely than here.

So who would be in a better position trying to dissolve this dilemma than a politician closely associated with ‘tradition’ like Zuma, a nearly ideal type African Big Man, being at the same time at home in the ‘modern’ world? Should he succeed in it, South Africa could inspire other countries at the continent. In case of failing, the social contradictions could explode as militant xenophobia, ethnic confrontations, criminality and violence.

Picture: African National Congress.

My other recent articles on South Africa dealt with Zuma’s comeback in Polokwane and the xenophobic riots of 2008.

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