South Africa’s growing political maturity

Justice Malala

One of the great myths of the new South Africa is the belief that, with time, we will go the route of “all Africa”.

This route, the myth goes, is the descent into dictatorship, the free-fall into hunger and poverty and the collapse of institutions such as an independent and vigorous judiciary, free press and civil society.

“Surely even you have to admit,” I am often confronted by people, “that what is happening to us is pretty much what happened in Nigeria, Kenya, and so forth.”

The volume about the impending implosion of South Africa has increased phenomenally since December 2007 when Jacob Zuma defeated Thabo Mbeki in Polokwane for the presidency of the African National Congress (ANC). With the arrival of Zuma and the new corps of ANC leaders, the myth has now taken on a bit of an all-encompassing truth. It is the easy answer to a far more complex question about where South Africa is headed.

But let us look at these myths and test their veracity.

In January, for example, Kenya became the great example of where South Africa might be headed. Kenya had held national elections in December and these had been blatantly stolen by the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki.

The people of Kenya, rightly, felt violated. They took to the streets in protest and the State – in typical dictatorial fashion – lashed back with violence. By the end of January some 1500 people had died, thousands injured and hundreds of thousands had been misplaced.

Could South Africa go the same way as Kenya? The truth is that the people of Kenya have never known true democracy until last Christmas. Jomo Kenyatta, the first post-colonial president, was in power from 1963 to 1978. Such a long period in leadership breeds a certain culture: that people are to leadership born and the populace has no choices.

Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel Arap Moi, stayed in power for 24 years! By the end of his tenure (he was pushed out screaming and shouting) the people of Kenya surely must have lost all sense of democratic instinct.

Let’s look at another country. Zimbabwe to the north of us gained its independence in 1980. It has had only one president, Robert Mugabe, since then. It is my humble opinion that any country that is ruled with an iron fist by one individual for 28 years is likely to find itself facing the challenges Zimbabwe now faces.

So then let us contrast this history with South Africa since 1994. Nelson Mandela came to power in April 1994 and stayed for a single five-year term. This is something unheard of on the continent: most liberators stayed on for longer and many had to be deposed. Surely Mandela’s decision is an example for the whole world?

After Mandela, in 1999, came Thabo Mbeki. At the end of September 2008, with about nine months of his second term left, the African National Congress recalled Mbeki and replaced him with its deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe.

Now think about. In just less than fifteen years South Africa is into its third president! The recall of Mbeki was done without fuss, rancour or bloodshed. It was as smooth as when former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was recalled by his Labour Party and the reins handed over to the country’s current PM Gordon Brown.

“The process shows the maturity of our democratic developmental state. We are an example to the rest of the continent and particularly the subcontinent, that a peaceful transition of power is possible.

“People must not panic. There will be no chaos, political maturity will prevail,” said Khotso Khumalo, the ANC’s parliamentary spokesman, when Mbeki was recalled.

The Financial Times, a newspaper regarded as the Bible of capitalism the world over, said after Mbeki’s recall that the ANC “should be commended for showing signs of democratic health – a rare sentiment in a former African liberation movement”.

It is worth noting that the ANC is putting Zuma forward as its presidential candidate for the 2009 general elections. If the party wins these elections, then South Africa will be into its fourth president in just fifteen years. If another party – say the opposition Democratic Alliance – wins those elections instead, the same will be true.

So, compared to many states all over the world, our turnover of heads of state is actually very healthy indeed. And we know what a change in head of state means: new energy in government, new Cabinet ministers keen to prove their abilities and the entrenchment of a philosophy that no person is born to perpetual leadership.

It is very easy to fall back on stereotypes of where an African country such as ours is going. But the truth is far more complex and challenging to all our stereotypes. Sure, we have our challenges.

But a stereotypical African basket case we are not. Indeed, democracy is entrenching itself in our beloved country. And that is good for all of us.

Justice Malala is an award-winning former newspaper editor, and is now general manager of Avusa’s stable of 56 magazines. He writes weekly columns for The Times newspaper and Financial Mail magazine, as well as a monthly media and politics column for Empire magazine. He is the resident political analyst for independent television channel e.tv and has consulted extensively for financial institutions on South African political risk. Malala was also an executive producer on Hard Copy I and II, a ground-breaking television series on SABC 3. Hard Copy I won the Golden Horn Award for best television series. Malala’s work has been published internationally in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Financial Times, The Independent, Forbes, Institutional Investor, The Age and The Observer.