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South Africa's extraordinary, ordinary elections

Analysis: Campaign is full of bitter rhetoric, but appears fair and without violence.


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.

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