Zuma might not live up to worst fears

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 April, 2009, 12:00am

In less than two weeks, Jacob Zuma will be elected as South Africa's new president. Many people see this as the beginning of the end for South African democracy, even for South Africa as a developed country, because Mr Zuma is an ill-educated populist who attracts criminal charges the way rotting meat attracts flies: rape, corruption, racketeering, fraud, money laundering and tax evasion. But it may be all right despite all that.

Mr Zuma has never faced trial on any of the charges except rape, for which he was acquitted. He spent six years fighting off the others, - and last week the National Prosecuting Authority dropped them all.

That doesn't mean he was innocent of all the other charges; his business adviser, Schabir Sheikh, spent years in prison for similar offences connected to the same deal. But the timing of the charges appears politically motivated.

Given his past behaviour, it is reasonable to assume that in power Mr Zuma will only feather his nest in a modest way, or he may even decide that it has enough feathers already. A more difficult question is whether he can prevent his cronies from looting the economy to the point where investors flee.

Some of them clearly think that it will soon be 'their turn to eat' (as they say in Kenya). Moreover, a high proportion of them are Zulus, whereas a majority of the ANC's first-generation leaders were Xhosa: there is scope for inter-tribal hostility. But there are also people who will urge him forcefully to keep a tight rein on that sort of thing - and one thing that you hear again and again from people who have had dealings with Mr Zuma is that he knows how to listen.

There are many senior people in the ANC who can give him the right advice if he is willing to listen, including Nelson Mandela himself, who publicly came out in support of Mr Zuma in mid-February. And if he won't listen, the outcome of the forthcoming election may anyway constrain his ability to do damage.

The ANC will undoubtedly win the election, but it may lose the two-thirds parliamentary majority it has enjoyed since the end of apartheid. Mr Zuma's ousting of Thabo Mbeki from the presidency last year led to a split in the ANC, with Mr Mbeki's supporters forming the new Congress of the People (Cope) to compete in this election.

Together with the existing opposition parties, Cope may pull enough voters away from the ANC to deprive it of that two-thirds majority, in which case the ruling party will no longer be able to change the constitution at will.

Because the end of apartheid in South Africa was so unexpectedly and even miraculously peaceful, people keep looking to find the dark underside of the miracle. They are waiting for South Africa to go the way of 'the rest of Africa'.

This is nonsense. South Africa is unlike any of the rest, in the sense that it is the only fully industrialised country on the continent. Whatever happens will be driven by a South African dynamic, not by some Fate that stalks all of Africa. And Mr Zuma is just a man, not Nemesis.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries