South Africa's extraordinary, ordinary elections

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Jacob Zuma, the man who will in all likelihood be elected South Africa’s next president, has been accused of corruption and rape.

Helen Zille, the white mayor of Cape Town and head of one of the main opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance, has been called a racist and a colonialist — although these charges are widely seen as unfounded.

The other main opposition party, the Congress of the People (Cope)  — which made history it broke away from the African National Congress last year — seems more interested in internal wrangling than in mounting a serious campaign to be the election spoiler.

The good news is that the run-up to South Africa's national elections looks and sounds a lot like routine politics in the western world, full of venom and vituperation, and less like the brutal and bogus polls held by many other developing nations. After the bloodshed and chaos of recent elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe, for example, South Africa’s exercise in democracy is cause for celebration.

When upwards of 23 million South Africans cast their votes on April 22nd, it will mark the fourth time the country has held free elections since the end of white minority rule in 1994. That these elections are expected to be generally peaceful and reflective of the will of the people is an accomplishment whose importance cannot be overstated.

Somehow, in less than a generation, a country that was once the world’s pariah has transformed itself from dictatorship to democracy. Equally impressive is that fact that many citizens now view the right to vote as an ordinary almost banal fact of political life.

But these elections are extraordinary as well, because how South Africa deals with its many daunting challenges has implications far beyond its borders. With a population of nearly 50 million, the continent’s biggest economy, most impressive infrastructure, and a global moral authority embodied by the country’s first black President Nelson Mandela, South Africa is the continent’s giant.

The first priority for the next president, which virtually all surveys show will be Jacob Zuma, will be to make progress in meeting the expectations of the underserved black majority while avoiding unduly alienating the influential white business establishment.

Maintaining a balance between the needs of a Third World population and a First World economy is very nearly impossible, but insofar as the past two administrations have had any success, it’s been largely due to the skills of the longtime Finance Minister Trevor Manuel. Given the world financial slump, which is hitting South Africa hard, his talents will be critical to Zuma's new government as it looks to generate employment, address housing shortages, and help an ailing educational system produce graduates who can contribute to the economy.

With some of the world’s highest rates of murder and sexual violence, as well as serious problems with drug smuggling, human trafficking, and corruption, crime is much on the minds of all South Africans. More than just a personal security issue, getting a grip on criminality is crucial to maintaining and attracting investors. Crime is also one of the main drivers of emigration, resulting in a brain drain of thousands of skilled young people each year.


Conversely South Africa’s generous migration policies mean that the country is flooded with immigrants, both legal and illegal, from various parts of the world, but particularly from neighboring states like Zimbabwe. Estimates of illegal immigrants range from 3 to 5 million, and hostility towards them erupted in xenophobic attacks last year resulting in dozens of deaths and thousands of displacements.

Among the complaints against immigrants is that they are competitors for jobs, as well as generators of crime and AIDS, but the reality is that South Africa has long had a serious AIDS infection problem, and has notoriously failed to address it. A national survey conducted in 2005 revealed that 10.8% of all South Africans over 2 years old were living with HIV, and figures for sexually active adults were much higher at 16.2%.

A new minister of health was appointed last year from the ranks of anti-AIDS activists, indicating that the government may finally be ready to seriously tackle this scourge. However, the new president will have to convince South Africans that his thinking has evolved from the days when he declared that he had minimized the risk of contracting the disease by taking a shower after sex with a sero-positive woman. Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine that Zuma will be less effective than his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, who is seen by many as an “AIDS denier”.

Apart from AIDS, the issue for which Mbeki was most castigated was Zimbabwe. No matter how appallingly Zimbabwe’s ruthless leader, Robert Mugabe, behaved, Mbeki seemed ready with an excuse. His lack of engagement became an embarrassment to South Africa throughout the continent and throughout the world. Encouragingly, Zuma has hinted that he will be less tolerant of his neighbor’s bad behavior. Progress on Zimbabwean political unity and economic reconstruction would of course be to South Africa’s benefit as it would encourage the return home of many of the estimated 2 to 3 million Zimbabwean residents.

Certainly South Africans have much to be proud of. Their country is blessed with stunning natural beauty, great wealth, and dynamic people. But as they go to the polls, they might well bear in mind Nelson Mandela’s observation that “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”

Christian Hennemeyer is a vice president of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in Washington, D.C. He has lived and worked in Africa for over 20 years.

More GlobalPost dispatches on South Africa:

Zuma leads in South Africa's presidential race

Why young politicos matter in South Africa

"Big Love" takes center stage in South Africa


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