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Elections in South Africa

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Democracy in Africa: one man, one vote­one time. This cutting joke is an all too cruel reality in many post-independence African nations. The cartoonish stereotype of charismatic strong-men, one-party rule, and uneven economic development directed by corrupt kleptocracies (with the tacit support of western donor nations) persists because it has elements of truth. With national elections looming in South Africa, many are asking if the country can avoid this cliché.

South Africa has long held itself as an exception. It was a different kind of colony, independent early in the twentieth century, and a stronghold of white minority rule. The race-based exclusions of Apartheid eventually earned South Africa the opprobrium of international opinion, yet it remained an economic powerhouse. Meanwhile, the struggle to end legal discrimination earned the Nobel Peace Prize for four South Africans: Albert Lutuli (1960), Desmond Tutu (1984), Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk (1993).

The world watched intently as, from 1991 to 1994, South Africans negotiated their way to a non-racial constitution and their first truly democratic elections. Since then, no head of state has secured permanent sinecure, opposition parties mount viable campaigns, while a lively press reports and critiques.

Sadly, this rosy analysis seems increasingly fragile in the run-up to the fourth post-Apartheid balloting for president. With violent crime increasing, repeated allegations of government corruption, the HIV/AIDS crisis spiraling, and collapse immanent in neighboring Zimbabwe, the stakes are high. South Africa needs policies, not the standoffs that have become politics as usual.

The African National Congress' party head, Jacob Zuma, likely will win the election, despite scandal. Variously charged with graft, money-laundering, racketeering, and rape, Zuma's court-room victories seem to be the result of politics rather than due process. The strong suggestion of tampering in a case against Zuma prompted President Thabo Mbeki's resignation last September, a clear admission of defeat from a political rival.

Zuma remains popular with broad swaths of the electorate despite being dogged for eight years by allegations stemming from a dicey arms deal. He appeals to voters who saw the older leadership as entrenched; he commands the support of the labor movement and Communists, which bristled under Mbeki.

South Africa desperately needs change. The official unemployment rate tops 20 percent, the unofficial rate is much higher. The government struggles to provide adequate schools and health clinics, and the housing backlog remains overwhelming. Overcoming a half-century of state-directed, purposely unequal development remains a monumental task, one the current government has partially addressed. The international financial community continues to praise South Africa's delicate balance between sound fiscal policy and spending to meet pressing social need.

For many South Africans, however, the circumstances of their daily lives are more meager than under Apartheid, when influx control limited the numbers of people in cities while payoffs to "tribal homelands" sent some funds to the countryside. Citizens want an alternative to a government slow to deliver the material changes they anticipated would accompany political change. Agitation for Zimbabwe-style land reforms is growing, despite the misery currently flowing across the border.

Although Zuma's critics point out his shortcomings, he offers an alternative within the ANC, reaching beyond the small black middle class that has benefited greatly from post-1994 changes while workers have not. As Ronald Reagan reminded US voters in 1980, we should not be surprised when a majority that feels underserved opts for change.

It is, however, disturbing when the fruits of that change seem decidedly undemocratic. Zuma's disregard for the rule of law is evident. His admitted disregard for safer sex in a country where HIV/AIDS remains epidemic is more telling. Zuma has populist appeal, but believing himself to be immune from a virus indicates the degree to which he thinks himself different from ordinary folk.

Also worrisome, Zuma takes umbrage at public critiques. Last year he sued a political cartoonist. Recently the ANC denounced mock election posters as "desperate attempts by mischievous forces of darkness."

Name-calling is an old democratic tradition, but invoking sorcery is a chilling reminder of justifications that served to sustain dictators. If South Africa is to remain an exception to the stereotypes of African politics, we must hope for more honesty, rationality, and genuine commitment to democratic process ­all in the service of more tangible economic development across the country.

Too much is at stake for South Africans ­indeed for the rest of the continent ­to blithely dismiss "forces of darkness" in this current election.