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The Battle for the Future of South Africa Intensifies

Walter Russell Mead

Elections? What elections? The NYT:

When South African voters last month handed the African National Congress its worst-ever losses, seemingly chastened party leaders said they would engage in “introspection.”

They promised to reach out to South Africans disillusioned by the A.N.C.’s apparent transformation from a celebrated liberation movement with cherished ideals to a corrupt party interested in self-preservation and self-enrichment.

But in the weeks since the Aug. 3 municipal elections, the A.N.C, which remains in power at the national level, has brushed aside calls from inside and outside the party to replace the scandal-tainted president, Jacob Zuma, before the end of his term in 2019. Instead of introspection, Mr. Zuma and his allies have moved aggressively to tighten their grip on the state’s coffers, surprising opponents and allies alike with their undisguised moves.

The future of South Africa will be decided in the next few years. Zuma and those around him seem mostly interested in looting Africa’s most promising economy, invoking the rhetoric of the ANC liberation struggle to distract supporters while they break down the rule of law and transform South African institutions into private fiefs.

Opponents on the Left, who think the ANC compromised too readily with white interests and capitalism, and on the Right, who think that democratic institutions and a mixed economy can do more for South Africa’s poor than socialist slogans, have cut into the ANC’s strength, especially in the cities where voters are more educated and media-savvy.

But the ANC has deep resources to draw on, and its role in the struggle against apartheid ensures that many people, especially in rural areas, will support it for a long time to come.

Meanwhile, there is a struggle within government institutions between those who like the ‘big man’ style of leadership that has been the curse of, for example, Zimbabwe and those who want to keep the state institutions operating under the rule of law. Zuma seems bent on using all the powers of his office to personalize the state, though some observers say he is less interested in crushing South Africa’s democratic institutions than in feathering his own nest. According to this theory, Zuma and his associates know that their days in office are numbered, and are just trying to grab what they can before they lose the key to the candy store.

Either way, the damage that Zuma and the clique around him can do to South Africa can be irreversible if the institutions of South African democracy don’t rise to the challenge. The last election campaign showed that the opposition parties, especially the Democratic Alliance, were growing into a much more serious force. The question is whether the opposition, now in power in a number of South Africa’s big cities, can deliver progress and deepen its appeal to voters. Will the DA do a better job of filing potholes and improving schools than the ANC? That may now be the most important question for the future of South Africa.

Local politics in cities like Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg may hold the key to Africa’s future. We’ll be watching.

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