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Will Jacob Zuma's South Africa Be Democracy's Shame?

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Fifteen years ago the world turned its eyes to South Africa, which was holding its first democratic elections. Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress swept the polls and officially pushed race-based apartheid into the past. Enthusiasts of political science -- and human justice -- rejoiced, and it seemed South Africa would become the crown jewel of liberal democracy.

Next week, South Africa will hold yet another election. Fewer eyes are looking toward the so-called rainbow nation these days, and that's a shame, because a democracy that once held so much promise may very well go up in flames.

South Africa's sociopolitical and economic evolution since apartheid has been a mixed bag. The 1998 election was another example of democracy in action, and ushered in Thabo Mbeki, a well-educated man who seemed poised to help carry Mandela's mantle. His reign, however, was a public-relations disaster: He dismissed AIDS as a myth, watched Zimbabwe burn and he became embroiled in a political power struggle that led to his resignation last September. While the nation boasts the most progressive constitution in the world, that has done nothing to stop rape, xenophobia and, particularly, systematic attacks on gays and lesbians.

Though the economy grew steadily in the post-apartheid period, the global crisis has since sparked a contraction. The Economist points out that the trade deficit is growing: "The trade deficit hit a new peak in January 2009 as exports contracted in response to the global economic downturn while imports edged higher."

Meanwhile, the bank overseeing land development has no money, the state can't support the educational system and infant mortality claims more and more lives each year, all grim details that Johann Rossouw points out in a New York Times Op-ed. And, yes, poverty continues to riddle the countryside. As does AIDS: an estimated 5.7 million South Africans were living with AIDS at the end of 2007. The prevalence of people infected has jumped from about 4.4% in 1994 to 18.1% in 2007, according to a UNAIDS report. The nation's health services cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, accommodate all of these people.

Many in the international community -- and, indeed, in South Africa -- are greatly disappointed by the lack of real progress for the people over the last decade and a half. Yet, it's perhaps that lack of progress that will help undo the nation's democratic ideal. And, if it does, there will be one name on the world's collective tongue: Jacob Zuma.

Zuma comes tabloid-ready, and one doesn't need to look far for unseemly tales about the former ANC freedom fighter. Perhaps the most salacious story about Zuma bubbled back in 2005, when a woman accused Zuma, then ANC's deputy president, of rape. Zuma insists she implicitly asked for it and called the tryst consensual. A judge acquitted Zuma, but not before the lawmaker admitted he knew the woman was HIV-positive and testified that he had "protected" himself from infection by taking a shower after their unsafe sex. Zuma was, at the time, heading the National AIDS Council.

The press still hounds Zuma for his ill-informed explanation, and Zuma retaliated by filing a seemingly endless line of lawsuits against publications he claims tarnished his name. He becomes especially peeved over cartoons depicting him in a shower cap. While certainly Zuma has a nominal right to privacy, his ink-soaked battles have many worried he'll come down hard on the free press, a cornerstone of any democratic society. He's most recently filed a lawsuit against Britain's the Guardian over an article in which Simon Jenkins called him an "unschooled former terrorist," a "communist sympathizer" and "polygamous." All of those charges happen to be true: Zuma has little education, has worked with the nation's communist party since 1963 and has an estimated 22 wives. As for the "terrorist" charge: that depends on where you stand on the ANC's armed struggle, which helped topple the unjust apartheid.

Zuma's media and female troubles aside, there are other red flags flying over the lawmaker's head. Take, for example, the 2004 arrest of his friend and advisor Schabir Shaik, who was later found guilty of fraud and corruption in connection with a government arms deal. Investigators alleged Shaik had worked closely with Zuma, who was then deputy president, and a judge later described the men's relationship as "mutually beneficial symbiosis." Zuma insisted opposition within the party, namely former President Thabo Mbeki, was attempting a smear campaign.

With corruption charges hanging over Zuma's head, Mbeki in 2005 stripped the deputy president of his executive powers. Zuma soon left parliament too, but he went on to fight the charges, even after a 2007 indictment delivered by the nation's elite police force, the Scorpions. Still, Zuma managed to play backstage politics within the party and win the ANC's presidency, a position that led straight to next week's election and a near-certain win.

Coincidentally, the National Prosecuting Authority last week dropped the corruption charges against Zuma after receiving wiretaps from 2007 that caught Mbeki allies discussing a "comeback" against Zuma. Said one of the aides, Leonard McCarthy, who once headed the Scorpions, "Saw the man [Mbeki] on Friday evening, we planning a comeback strategy and once we have achieved that, we will clean up all around us, my friend." He was speaking with former NPA leader Bulelani Ngcuka. The wiretaps were made available by Zuma's legal team, who somehow procured them from the National Intelligence Agency.

Rather than reexamining the facts, including how Zuma's team came about the wiretaps, the prosecutors simply dismissed the case. Zuma's opponents claim his allies helped orchestrate the dismissal. If true, such a development calls into question Zuma and his allies' commitment to a fair and impartial judicial system, another tenet in liberal democracies. Of South Africa's deplorable back-door politics, Laurence Cockcroft of the anti-corruption organization Transparency International remarked, "It's very sad to see Africa's major country now going down the same route by which corruption is easily excused by political authorities in other African countries."

Yes, Zuma's alleged involvement in tossing the case is distressing, but the most worrisome development out of South Africa stems from the ANC's changing face.

Faced with a no-confidence vote from his party, Mbeki resigned last September. That, coupled with Zuma's inevitable ascension, led many of the ANC's key members left to form a new political party, the Congress of the People. A far more moderate group, COPE hopes to bring back the ANC's glory days. Unfortunately for them, COPE's not doing well in the polls -- current projects give them a mere eight percent of the vote -- and their split has only bolstered Zuma's populist platform.

Though he has successfully wooed some in the business community, Zuma's main source of power lies with the left. This should come as no surprise: he has worked with the South African Communist Party since 1963. And that party has in recent years rushed to defend him against corruption charges. So, too, did the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which last week called for an investigation in the aforementioned Mbeki aide caught discussing Zuma's case. (Ironically, both the SACP and COSATU proved instrumental in the ANC's 1994 victory, but they were cast aside when Mandela's team opted for international aid over political loyalties.)

COPE's leader, another liberationist fighter named Mosiuoa Lekota, told Britain's Times Online that Zuma, during the ANC's power struggle last year, pledged allegiance to the left. "He told the ANC national executive, 'I owe nobody anything here. The only people I will consult beyond the election is the Communist party and the unions.'"

Though Zuma's left-wing politics do not necessarily mean a break with democracy, the ANC announced today that they're planning on implementing state-owned mines. Mining accounts for seven percent of the nation's GDP, and the government insists it will continue to allow private mines to operate, as is the case with the state-owned oil firm, PetroSA. So, before we get riled up about nationalization, rest assured: ANC's still very committed to making money. Why, just last month, the government refused to grant the Dalai Lama a visa for a peace conference because China, a major investor in the nation, instructed them to do so. Such moral transgression -- not to mention the economic and political trajectories -- have Zuma and the ANC's opponents wondering what the future holds.

Helen Zille of the opposition Democratic Alliance warned this week that South Africa could become a "failed state" should the ANC win the election next week. "The choice in this election is very simply this: will South Africa become a successful democracy or will we end up a failed state?" She goes on to worry that if the ANC wins the two-third majority needed to change the constitution, well, then it may be all over: "If the ANC gets a two-thirds majority we would have lost this critical opportunity to ensure that we hold the power abusers accountable and not give them carte blanche to continue abusing their power more and more."

Zille cites a few disquieting developments to support her fears, like the ANC-led government's decision to disband the Scorpions. In addition to being behind Zuma's corruption indictment, the Scorpions were also investigating at least six other high-ranking ANC officials for unrelated cases. Prosecutors also recently released Zuma's longtime ally, Schabir Shaik, the man who was found guilty of bribery and corruption. Zuma has also made perplexing comments about the judicial system, telling a reporter last week that the nation needs to reexamine judges and their authority. Via South Africa's Independent:

If I sit here and I look at a chief justice of the Constitutional Court, you know, that is the ultimate authority, which I think we need to look at it because I don't think we should have people who are almost like God in a democracy... Why are they not human beings? I don't want to debate that now, but at the right time I'm keen to engage them before the issue becomes public.

Zuma later insisted that he wouldn't bully judges, but wanted them to know they can't "stand up and say I don't care what this ANC" thinks.

Jacob Zuma's commitment to communism, apparent disdain for free press and alleged meddling in the justice system are enough to raise the hairs on anyone who believes in open, transparent liberal democracy. But, then again, judging from the ANC's wavering over the past fifteen years, and the construction of capitalist-based democracy, maybe the fearful should suppress their surprise.

In his 1996 book The New South Africa and the Socialist Vision: Positions and Perspectives Toward a Post-Apartheid Society, theorist Thomas Ranuga hypothesizes that South Africa's democratic, capitalist society needed to marginalize the poor to survive: "This [is a] new South Africa...geared toward entrenching the capitalist way of life." He continued, "This is the system that the Left and the Black majority will be called upon to challenge, dismantle, and replace with a humane, egalitarian, democratic and socialist society."

If that's the case, then the world's eyes had better be on South Africa next week -- and in the coming months -- because it could be an indicator of things to come. Or perhaps we should have seen this coming all along.