Monday, September 22, 2008

Africa's Mesic Moment

And so for we keen watchers of developing democracies, the moment of destiny draws unexpectedly nearer.

It's difficult to judge the truth of the situation in South Africa; did Mbeki try to use the courts to deal with a rival? Is Zuma serially corrupt? Either way, you can but conclude that if this sort of thing was happening to any other party in any other democratic country, they'd have poll ratings that would make Gordon Brown look beloved.

And yet, in the most recent poll I could find the ANC weren't registering any real loss of support. The damage to South Africa of such a result is obvious; though the criminal allegations are unproven, Mr Zuma has not exactly distinguished himself as a leader and promises, if anything, greater tribalism in South African politics. The potential damage to the rest of the continent, however, is far more severe.

The tale of South Africa now is, sadly, the tale of most of the rest of Africa; a strong resistance party emerges, forces the end of colonial or colonist power, sweeps to power in a democratic election and becomes the occupying power itself. What's more, after the Zimbabwe experience, we're used to the idea that the occupation of power is achieved by vote-rigging, intimidation and violence, but those are the strategies of the endgame, not the opening.

South Africa may to some extent be insulated from that process by its dependence on native corporate power and Mbeki's black middle class, but the longer it remains under ANC rule “just because”, the longer it takes for it to become the example and the leader we keep wanting it to be. If Mbeki's legacy does end up being a successful transition to a Zimbabwean democracy, it will be by luck more than judgement; he was never in a position to be a leader in that standoff because his ANC is what ZANU-PF once was.

While the ANC is there, insulated from its mistakes by overwhelming goodwill, it serves as the example to every entrenched African leader that they have the right to stay in the job. A peaceful, democratic transition of power in South Africa is vital to say to the rest of the continent, “this is the way to do it”. If the current mess can help bring that about by finally puncturing the ANC's hegemony, it may be the one good thing to come of it.

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