Sunday, April 22, 2012

South Africa: Africa's Shining Democracy is in Need of a Political Makeover

Africa's shining democracy is in need of a political makeover.

Staff Writer

Wedding bells are ringing in South Africa. The president, Jacob Zuma, is preparing to wed his long time fiancĂ© very shortly. This development would only be slightly interesting as a diplomatic or state affair if it were his first time tying the knot. But that isn’t the case, and the news of a pending wedding is rather surprising since Mr. Zuma already has three wives. Adding to the unexpectedness of this state event is the political climate under which it will be taking place. At the moment, every politician in the world is having a really tough time explaining to their voting public the contracting global economy and the devastating impact it is having on the national unemployment numbers, not to mention the gloomy economic outlook economists are predicting for the coming years. It would appear this concern does not preoccupy the president enough for him to put away his plans to provide South Africa with its forth first lady. He has proven in the past to be up to the task, for public perception of his polygamous marriage is that all the Mrs. Zumas happily live under the same roof.

Recently, however, it would appear Mr. Zuma does not have the same handle over his political party—The African National Congress (ANC). The president is currently overseeing a period of unprecedented political backstabbing and fragmentation in the party that brought black South Africans their independence from apartheid.  The political fallout the ANC is currently experiencing was bound to happen. No one expected the ANC to remain a coherent ideological entity forever when it came to power in 1994. It holds an unnatural majority in the lower and upper houses of South Africa’s government and is assured the presidency for some time to come. What was not expected, because everyone hoped for success—South Africans and non-South Africans alike—was the ANC’s failure to significantly better the social-economic standing of black South Africans since it came to power.

The ANC came to power with a social agenda that boldly attempted to revert the long era of black disenfranchisement under white-rule South Africa. Many of the programs it enacted for this purpose have failed to raise the very low standard of living of most blacks. The black economic empowerment had a daunting task of putting the national wealth in the hands of the black majority. Though, there has been progress on this front, it is very little and slow coming. And black South Africans are running out of patience. With only 10 percent of companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) owned by blacks, evidently the ANC’s programs still have a long way to go to revert the country’s wealth imbalance. The latest Organization for Economic Corporation and Developed (OECD) report on South Africa shows that 50 percent of the country lives in poverty. And, according to the same organization, there is still a strong link between race and poverty, even though there exist a growing black middle class. The relatively new phenomenon that is the black middle class is very small. Most people see many of them as the lucky few blacks that have the right connections to the country’s politicians.

South Africans in great numbers say they are ready for a change. Many believe the upcoming elections may produce an unexpected result. No one believes the ANC will loose its majority, but its margin of victory may be slimmer this time around. The current order seems apparent to all, even to ANC leadership, who are now willing to publicly accept their shortcomings. However, what is also very clear, but not admitted so openly, is that recalling South Africa’s “black government” at the ballot box would be a massive psychological blow. Few are willing to accept that a “black government” can not run South Africa, which, to most, would be the message should a ballot vote dent the ANC’s power significantly. Nelson Mandela stressed that South Africa was to become a rainbow nation when it gained independence. The truth and reconciliation efforts that followed immediately after apartheid went a long way in fostering the national climate necessary to create the rainbow nation. But it couldn’t wipe away the discontent forever, even if Mandela’s sublime rhetoric placated it temporarily.

Black South Africans want what they were promised. The ANC and Mr. Zuma will not be able to deliver in their current state. What the situation requires is a new political dynamic in the country. A country’s most important decisions should not come entirely from the deliberation table of one political party. Inevitably, such monopolised power would be abused and would only serve to create an obtuse political class—the situation South Africa currently finds itself. The absence of viable, competitive political alternatives to the ANC has meant that any idea that does not come from the ANC’s leadership is not entertained. As a result, South Africa’s politics is lacking innovative responses to its problems. Observers of the current political climate are certain the ANC is soon to splinter. It would be a welcomed development to many who believe it would better serve South Africans.