In South Africa, an Age of Idealism Ends

By Alec Russell
Sunday, April 19, 2009

JOHANNESBURG A little more than 12 years ago, I stood outside the Union Buildings, the light sandstone government headquarters in the South African capital of Pretoria, where the country's dour apartheid leaders made so many fateful decisions. It was there that tens of thousands had gathered in 1994, under a diamond-bright sky, to celebrate the birth of a "new" nation with the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the country's first black president. Two years later, I had returned to interview Thabo Mbeki, then Mandela's successor-in-waiting. After an hour I had emerged confident that South Africa would be in safe hands.

My conversation with Mbeki ranged from the global economy to literature on the Highland Clearances, the 18th-century eviction of Scottish tenant farmers by their clan chiefs. In my story, I described Mbeki as a would-be philosopher-king and concluded that he would move beyond the fuzzy nationbuilding ethos of the Mandela presidency and provide the rigor that South Africa's government needed.

I was not alone in believing that Mbeki was right for South Africa. Businesspeople, foreign officials and editors trooped to see Mbeki in those days and invariably left reassured about the prospect of his presidency. But as South Africa readies for another new president, it's important to note how wrong we were.

Mbeki's bold embrace of orthodox macroeconomic policies did stabilize the nation's finances. But that success has been overshadowed by other calamitous moves. His questioning of the science on AIDS has led to thousands of unnecessary deaths. His reluctance to condemn the abuses of neighboring Zimbabwe's ruinous leader, Robert Mugabe, has prolonged that country's agony and reinforced international perceptions that Africa tolerates tyrants. On his watch, the ruling African National Congress has eroded the independence of some key institutions of the state. That sets a worrying precedent as a new ANC clique -- with plenty of scores to settle with the courts, the media and rivals -- prepares to take power after Wednesday's elections.

So why did Mbeki's many admirers in those heady early post-apartheid days turn a blind eye to his flaws, in particular his autocratic tendencies? Was it, as one of the ANC's most senior figures told me, that we were taken in by his professorial persona and assumed that he was more brilliant than he is? Was it that Mbeki's tapping of his pipe, his favoring of well-tailored suits and his liberal use of quotes from his favorite poet, Yeats, made him stand out from the wild stereotype of African leaders that had been built up in the West over decades of failed governments?

Our impulses were varied. Some analysts were wary of being tarred with the same brush as the reactionary right, which was gleefully hoping that the ANC would fail. For white commentators, there was the fear of being accused of racism. Many black commentators were keen to show solidarity with the new, young, black-led government. Reporters had been inspired by South Africa's struggle for freedom; we naturally did not want the dream to die.

But it served neither Mbeki nor South Africa well to put him on a pedestal. The more adulation he received, the more he seemed to expect. The ANC inherited an appalling legacy, and many of its members, including the finance minister, Trevor Manuel, continue valiantly to try to address that challenge. But under Mbeki, the party started to lose its way and is now at risk of ossifying, with the distinction between the party and the state increasingly blurring.

This was the same syndrome that led many abroad to continue to laud Mugabe long after he had overseen the massacre of thousands of supporters of Joshua Nkomo, the leader of a rival Zimbabwean liberation movement, in the early 1980s, a few years after he took power. Even in 2000, as Zimbabwe's economy was imploding under his abusive rule, some prominent Western journalists saluted his expropriation of several thousand mainly white-owned farms as an overdue answer to the vexing issue of land reform, when in fact it was a crude populist move to bolster his position.

Now there is another new era beginning in southern Africa, under another titanic figure. As the leader of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, Mbeki's flamboyant, charming and controversial rival, is guaranteed a sweeping victory in Wednesday's polls. (In December 2007, he defeated Mbeki in the party's leadership election, paving the way last autumn for the party to oust Mbeki as the country's president.)

But what will Zuma do with his victory?

Two years ago, the idea that he might become president would have been shocking. His financial adviser was sentenced to 15 years in 2005 for, among other offenses, procuring a bribe for him from a French arms dealer. (Zuma denies being party to any such arrangement.) His reputation also took a battering when he was tried for raping the daughter of a family friend. He was acquitted, but not before testifying that Zulu custom made it an insult not to sleep with a young woman when she wore a short skirt in a particular way. Outside the court, in a toxic blend of Zulu nationalism and macho pride, he and his supporters sang the old liberation hymn, "Bring Me My Machine Gun," which he has adopted as his anthem.

Since then, Zuma has wooed international financiers. He promises that despite his ties to the unions, he will not yank policy to the left. He will certainly be a more inclusive leader than was Mbeki, who jettisoned Mandela's ethos of reconciliation. Zuma likes to joke that even without white people, there would still be racism in South Africa between members of different African tribes. He promises to focus on health and education, which badly need momentum, and also on combating the nation's appalling levels of crime. He once told me an engaging anecdote about having been mugged in Johannesburg. Privately he is critical of Mugabe.

This is encouraging, but so far it is just rhetoric. And it is fanning vast expectations. His many hopeful supporters in the townships are talking about a renewal of the early post-apartheid enthusiasm for transforming the lives of the poor. But can the ANC really rediscover its zeal and recommit to good governance? When multiple corruption charges against Zuma were dropped on a technicality earlier this month, it raised fears that the judiciary's independence has been compromised. Zuma unhelpfully declared recently that the country's top court was not God.

South Africa has to hope that the skeptics are wrong and that Zuma will deliver. He does at least have one major advantage over his predecessor: Internationally, few expect him to succeed, and South Africans will not have to endure star-struck coverage from reporters like me over their leader a second time. For South Africa, the age of idealism is finally over.

Alec Russell is world news editor of the Financial Times and the author of "Bring Me My Machine Gun: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa, from Mandela to Zuma."

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