/ 17 April 2009

In SA’s thriving democracy, politics has become ordinary

Fifteen years after Nelson Mandela became president, South Africa is heading into its fourth parliamentary election.

During the apartheid era, the whites who governed South Africa used to justify their grip on power by claiming black majority rule would plunge the country into chaos and tribal bloodshed and open the door to communism.

So far, history has confounded them. Fifteen years after Nelson Mandela became president, the country is heading into its fourth parliamentary election, and next month it will get its fourth post-apartheid president.

With only scattered violence but nothing remotely resembling chaos, the campaign for Wednesday’s election is playing out on YouTube and Facebook, in text messages and street banners and rallies.

The rhetoric sometimes gets overheated and the allegations of fraud and corruption fly freely, but what’s extraordinary in this democracy of about 50-million people is that politics, in many ways, has become ordinary.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC), in power since the first multiracial election in 1994, is still assured of a sweeping victory on Wednesday, but is no longer the monolith it was. The emergence of a breakaway faction called the Congress of the People (Cope) has placed the ANC’s two-thirds majority in Parliament on a knife edge, according to opinion polls.

Without it, the ANC won’t be able to enact major budgetary and legislation unchallenged, or change the Constitution.

The math takes on added weight this time because next month South Africa will get a new president, probably Jacob Zuma, who is backed by ANC leftists, communists and trade unions. A two-thirds majority would be a big help to these groups, which would like to water down the market-oriented policies of Mandela and his successor, Thabo Mbeki.

”The emergence of Cope has reinvigorated South African politics,” says Anton Harber, a journalism professor and columnist.

The ANC ”fears the extent of their majority could be severely dented”.

The new party is considered likely to win less than 10% of the vote, leaving the largely white Democratic Alliance (DA) as the chief opposition. But for the 97-year-old ANC, long a broad multiracial tent for communists and entrepreneurs, leftists and traditionalists, the split is more painful than a matter of numbers.

Among the rebels are some of the heroes of the struggle against apartheid. Cope’s president is Mosiuoa Lekota, a former defence minister who was imprisoned alongside Mandela during apartheid times. Its deputy is Mbhazima Shilowa, a leading trade unionist, former Communist Party leader and well regarded for his role as premier of Gauteng province.

Alan Boesak, a clergyman and icon of black liberation, is the party candidate for premier of the Western Cape province in the regional elections also taking place on Wednesday.

From the suits they wear to the businesslike language they use, Cope recruits smack of an emerging middle class epitomised by 50-year-old Shilowa. Imposingly tall, the one-time night watchman whose trademarks used to be red socks and a Mao-style cap now smokes cigars and co-owns a wine label.

”We are not a party of liberation but a party born out of democratic process to defend that democracy,” Shilowa told the Associated Press in a recent interview. ”Because we believe that the rot is beginning to set in which, if not arrested, may set our country on a dangerous course.”

That ”rot,” he and other Cope members argue, is the corruption allegations that dog the ANC and Zuma, the likely next president.

Although often accused of failing to deliver as much as it promised when it came to power, the ANC has much to be proud of.

Since 1994, more than three million houses have been built for 14-million people. In the townships where blacks were confined and neglected under apartheid, schools have been built and roads paved. The poor get free water and electricity. Soweto, Johannesburg’s biggest township, is a hive of construction sites and road works.

The economy has grown at an unprecedented 5% in the past three years, and next year comes a crowning act of international respect when South Africa hosts the soccer World Cup, the most-watched sporting event on the globe.

Successive governments, despite the ANC’s leftist roots, have broadly abided by free-market policies.

Relations with the United States have been prickly at times, notably over the Iraq war. But whichever government follows is likely to remain friendly, especially to President Barack Obama whose election electrified South Africans.

Speech remains free, as evidenced by the public outcry over the sex and financial scandals that dog Zuma, and over the government’s refusal last month to allow a visit by the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, for fear of angering China.

The tribal bloodshed never became the problem apartheid’s defenders predicted. If elected next month by the new 400-seat Parliament, Zuma would be South Africa’s first president from the Zulu tribe.

Whites, a 9% minority, are scarce on the political landscape, but Zuma has gone out of his way to personally court their vote.

He even declared that Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch settlers who are often most closely linked with apartheid, are as much an African tribe as the Zulus.

At a recent Cope rally, the nation’s ethnic mosaic was evident as Shilowa addressed the crowd in English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Sotho and Pedi, his mother tongue.

But South Africa’s problems are gigantic too. About a fifth of the work force — some estimates say 40% — is jobless. Aids takes 1 000 lives a day. Fifty homicides a day make crime a national crisis.

An influx of illegal immigrants from neighbouring countries boiled over last year as mobs attacked the newcomers, accusing them of taking jobs and housing from poor South Africans. More than 60 people died.

The ANC, meanwhile, has gone through a wringer.

In 2007 Mbeki lost a bitter power struggle with Zuma and was ousted as party leader, forcing him to yield the presidency prematurely to an interim successor, Kgalema Motlanthe, until Zuma could take over. Presidents are constitutionally barred from having a third term.

Many South Africans worry about Zuma’s populist rhetoric and his legal troubles over corruption allegations and a lurid sex scandal.

They fear that ANC leftists, capitalising on widespread disenchantment with Mbeki’s economics and his aloof manner, will seek through Zuma to shift the country’s market policies leftward.

The president-in-waiting has an impressive record as an ANC guerrilla, and shows a common touch with the poor.

”Zuma is a person who is very close to the people,” said Jabulani Mhlongo, a 50-year-old preacher who has been in a wheelchair since police shot him during a 1988 anti-apartheid protest. ”Before his leadership, the ANC was for the elite. Now it will be for the people.”

But Zuma is warning that the global financial crisis may make it harder for the ANC to keep its promises of heavy public spending to create jobs and improve education and health.

The split that produced Cope has been acrimonious.

At the party’s founding rally last November, some people ripped up their ANC membership cards and stamped on the shreds.

Shilowa’s former trade union, an ANC ally, accused him of having ”changed from being a darling of workers to a member of expensive, elitist, whisky-drinking and cigar-smoking clubs”.

At another Cope rally, Tlokotsi Taule said his friends accuse him of ”betrayal” for dumping the party that made it possible for him to have a house in a middle-class neighbourhood and work as a team leader at a call centre.

”People have got the wrong impression that because the ANC liberated us, we must follow them blindly,” he said.

Taule was among those who clashed with police in the historic Soweto student uprising of 1976. Now 39 and a father of three, he says: ”The current ANC leadership has betrayed us.”

In Africa, and particularly southern Africa, loyalty to former liberation movements is strong. While millions will still vote for the ANC out of loyalty, its new rival is out to prove that these bonds are beginning to weaken.

”For Africa, this is quite hopeful,” said Carol Paton, a leading political commentator. — Sapa-AP