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Something to Celebrate in South Africa

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, May 10, 2009

South Africa has selected a new president in its fourth democratic and peaceful national election since its liberation from apartheid. So much for the cynics' slogan "one man, one vote, one time" as the unyielding rule of African politics.

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Orderly transfers of power have become routine in the nation once known as the world's racial powder keg. So the election of Jacob Zuma last week drew scant mention in the U.S. media or from the American government -- even though Zuma is one of the most colorful, controversial and now important new leaders on the international scene.

Zuma's successful drive to deny Thabo Mbeki a third presidential term certainly had its rough edges. Corruption charges against Zuma (he claimed that they were politically inspired) were mysteriously dropped, and his followers ensured his victory by snaring control of the ruling African National Congress from Mbeki earlier this year. But procedural battles within party machines are better than the upheaval and violence that mark political struggle elsewhere.

The factional battle within the ANC may in fact represent a promising trend in African politics as opposition forces find shelter in governing structures. In neighboring Zimbabwe and in Kenya, opposition leaders have negotiated their way into government to continue their fight from within after having been cheated out of election victories by ruling despots.

But that is a story for the future. What intrigues me as someone who first visited South Africa four decades ago -- at the height of white minority rule -- is the astonishing success the country has become, thanks in large part to the wise leadership and generous reconciliation policies of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president.

Zuma's formal election by Parliament on Wednesday, following the ANC's victory in countrywide balloting on April 22, is only one sign of that success. Since Mandela's election in 1994, ANC governments have frequently presided over annual economic growth rates of 5 to 6 percent. (For details and a good portrait of Zuma, see "Bring Me My Machine Gun," a new warts-and-all book on South Africa and the ANC by Alec Russell.)

Leadership counts everywhere. But it really counts in Africa, where state structures and legal protections are weak. Monsters such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe or Sudan's Omar Hassan al-Bashir can turn their countries into living hells, while Mandela, Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta, Senegal's Leopold Senghor and Botswana's Sir Seretse Khama were able to bring relative stability out of the turmoil of decolonization and the collapse of apartheid.

Mandela has inspired South Africa's black majority to focus not on revenge for the past but on a better future for all of South Africa's people. Kenyatta did the same for Kenyans by titling his autobiography "Suffering Without Bitterness."

Zuma, 67, is far more of a populist than was Mandela or Mbeki, arguing that there must be faster economic progress for South Africa's poor. But this self-educated former goatherd has promised to continue Mandela's reconciliation and pro-business policies, even as he uses a more leftist radical vocabulary. And he has far fewer complexes than does the aloof Mbeki, whose greatest failures were his denial of the AIDS epidemic that afflicts his country and a stony refusal to exert pressure on Mugabe to leave office.

Mbeki once suggested to me that the fact Mugabe was being criticized so harshly by Africa's former colonial powers, and by Britain in particular, made him reluctant to bring economic pressure to bear on his neighbor. He did not want to be seen as doing the white man's bidding.

History, culture and logistics all make it difficult for outside powers to intervene in Zimbabwe and other African crises, such as the one in Sudan's Darfur province. That is why it is important for Zuma to take the lead on Zimbabwe, just as Tanzania's Julius Nyerere did in his humanitarian intervention to topple Uganda's Idi Amin in 1979. The same is true for Sudan's African neighbors. Outsiders can help, but Africans must lead the way when it comes to the responsibility to protect citizens from their own governments.

Africa has not loomed large on President Obama's screen thus far. More's the pity. He could have used a break in last week's grim warnings from the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan that their countries will shortly implode if they don't get billions more in U.S. aid. Invite Jacob Zuma to Washington soon, Mr. President. He won't shake you down in such brutal fashion, and he has a great, inspiring story to tell.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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