A Time Beyond Dreams: South Africa After Mandela
When I last visited South Africa, in 2008, the most promising democracy on the continent was in the midst of a strange presidential campaign, one that was being fought not at the ballot box but in back rooms and courtrooms. In order to witness the spectacle, I went to see Zuma fight his corruption indictment before the Constitutional Court, the country's highest, which sits on the hilltop grounds of a decommissioned Johannesburg prison that once held many of the ANC's leaders. Zuma's lawyers were challenging the legality of a police search that had uncovered more than 93,000 documents, evidence that added up, in Russell's assessment, to "a straightforward commercial criminal case." The politics of the proceeding were anything but simple, though, because by this point Zuma had already wrested the leadership of the ANC away from Mbeki in a bitter internal party election. As he faced eleven green-robed justices of various races, Zuma knew that he would soon be president, if he could just manage to stay out of jail.
There were no courthouse protests the day I visited, just a bored complement of cameramen milling around the entryway doors. Inside, in a courtroom that had been constructed in an avant-garde style, with large windows and skylights designed to emphasize the transparency of South Africa's reformed legal system, Zuma sat quietly in a dark blue suit as his attorney argued that he'd been the victim of "appalling behavior" on the part of the police. During recesses, I could look down from the press gallery and see him sharing a deep belly laugh with Jessie Duarte, a spokeswoman for the ANC, and a group of dapper white lawyers. After the chief justice gaveled the hearing closed, Zuma bustled out of the courtroom, escorted by a pushy security cordon into the back of a black BMW. I did not feel like I'd encountered a rabble-rouser, or a scourge, or a "modern tribal chief," but rather something profoundly unexotic: an embattled party hack.
Zuma has assiduously worked to cultivate his African "authenticity," appearing in public dressed in leopard skins and entering into a series of publicized polygamous marriages. And members of the international press corps--including, I have to admit, myself at times--have been more than willing to play along, because it all fits into a familiar narrative: mass discontent gives rise to a Big Man in Africa. But this populist image is of a fairly recent and conveniently timed vintage; back when he was allied with Mbeki, Zuma was considered a colorless moderate. If Zuma is an authentic expression of anything besides his own ambition, it's the present state of the ANC. The tragedy of today's South Africa is not the emergence of a demagogue but the degeneration of the liberation movement.
"Party officials liked to regard themselves as high priests of some venerable cult and to pretend that the party never engaged in competitive internal politics," Russell writes, but his book convincingly demonstrates that precisely the opposite is true. The ANC has always been factionalized, but during fifteen unchallenged years in power, old ideological divisions have been replaced by more craven calculations. Under Mbeki, a government policy of "Black Economic Empowerment," supposedly designed to right the inequalities fostered by apartheid, became a vehicle to transfer fantastic wealth to a favored coterie within the party elite. "And yet anyone outside the ANC who talked about the corruption of the party faced accusations of disloyalty--if black, Indian, or of mixed race--or, if white, racism," Russell writes. The sins alleged in Zuma's bribery indictment took place in the larger context of this internal competition for spoils, which also created resentments that were to fuel his ascent. (His "insurgent" campaign to take control of the party was backed by several ANC tycoons who'd fallen out with Mbeki.) True, Zuma also had the support of left-wingers and union leaders. "But they were as much the foot soldiers in a party putsch," Russell writes, "as the standard-bearers of a revolution."
Zuma's loyalists ultimately forced Mbeki to resign the presidency and installed a pliant caretaker. Prosecutors, under heavy government pressure, abandoned the corruption case. Though some embittered Mbeki supporters bolted from the ANC to form a splinter party, April's election was a mere formality. Since taking over the presidency, Zuma has not radically altered government policy: there has been a slight shift in tone, some new faces in the cabinet and a few cronies stationed in influential places, such as at the head of the intelligence service. (As a former spy master, Zuma appreciates the political value of secrets.) He's striven to reassure various interest groups, contradicting himself at times, and has made crowd-pleasing pronouncements, such as suggesting that police officers should be empowered to shoot criminals on sight. While some of the more ideological segments of his coalition are expressing disappointment that he's done little tangible for the left, formerly skeptical voices have expressed pleasant surprise about an administration that has been, in the words of The Economist, "notably pragmatic."
It's still early, though, and "it could have been worse" is not much of a governing justification, not in a country that faces societal challenges on the scale of South Africa's. When I last saw Mark Gevisser, at a New York lecture in May, shortly after Zuma's inauguration, he sounded downcast about the future of the ANC, which he said had become "fat and arrogant." Much to his distress, he'd found himself, for the first time in his life, unable to vote for the party of liberation. Yet he saw some reason for hope. "No one thinks Zuma is a god," Gevisser told his audience. Mandela was a patriarch, Mbeki a princeling, but the third elected president of the new South Africa is a politician, nothing more and nothing less. It's not the stuff of dreams, but it's a reality most democracies live with. South Africa managed to undo apartheid; it should be able to withstand a mediocrity.