South African Discomfort
On the verge of a historic election, South Africa is showing its Democratic growing pains.
The campaign has not been all that rough considering what has happened in other young democracies on the continent (or even the violence that accompanied the run-up to what I call the Nelson Mandela election in 2004, when hundreds were killed.) While there has been some violence, relatively speaking, it hasn’t been significant—though it has added to the level of discomfort.
Instead, what has taken the normal cacophony of political voices to a piercing decibel level is a ruling by the National Prosecuting Authority, which dropped 16 charges of conspiracy, racketeering, money laundering and bribery against Jacob Zuma, head of the ruling ANC. The National Prosecuting Authority has insisted since 2005 that it had solid evidence that Zuma was guilty of the charges, and indeed, his business associate was sent to jail for 15 years for soliciting a bribe on Zuma’s behalf from a French arms dealer. The scandal also cost Zuma his job as deputy president when he was fired by Mbeki.
But what goes around comes around. Zuma defeated Mbeki for the presidency of the ANC back in December, the same day the news broke that Zuma was going to be recharged with even more charges. Shortly thereafter, Mbeki was forced by the ANC to step down as president. This followed a judge’s ruling that the charges against Zuma were politically motivated, as he had insisted all along.
To cut short a long story that is not yet over, the National Prosecuting Authority’s airtight case against Zuma was dismissed last week because of what the acting chief prosecutor called “abuse of the process.” The ammunition for this ruling came in the form of audio tapes revealing conversations that involved an Mbeki loyalist and former chief investigator. The conversations revolved around the timing of the announcement that Zuma was going to be recharged (after three years) on more corruption counts based on new evidence.
We are now being told that the tapes prove what Zuma had been saying all along—that there was a political conspiracy aimed at derailing his ANC candidacy to boost Mbeki’s. So far, Mbeki’s name is not mentioned in the tapes—at least the ones made public. We are still waiting for the full transcript, wherever it is.
But now, charges of political interference are being leveled at the Zuma forces. Opposition parties cried foul when the National Prosecuting Authority dropped the charges against Zuma; given that it was two weeks before the election, that is essentially a referendum on the ANC and Jacob Zuma. In South Africa’s parliamentary system, the party that wins the most seats gets to choose the president; COPE is objecting, urging changes that would allow for direct election of the president by the voters.
So where does that leave things? In the words of Uys, “Discomfort is where we are right now.”
Zuma is claiming vindication, and the opposition is showing irritation. Everybody involved is now talking about taking everybody else to court; the now-reclusive Mbeki has spoken out, questioning how the tapes got into private hands and once again proclaimed his innocence. But the ANC’s alliance partners called for the arrest of Mbeki and the two figures involved in the taped phone conversations.
Zuma insists that, even though he has not been acquitted, his conscience is clear and that there is no cloud over his head. (Although cartoonists continue to draw a shower head over his head in mockery of his assertion that he protected himself from AIDS by taking a shower after having unprotected sex with an HIV positive woman. He did go to court on rape charges in that case and was acquitted.)
But even if, as Zuma insists, there are no clouds over his head, there are plenty hanging over South Africa and the political process as a whole. The election, despite the high level of certainty about certain outcomes, will provide a major test for this still young democracy. Discomfort is the operative word right now. But stay tuned.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a Johannesburg-based journalist and author of New News Out of Africa: Uncovering Africa's Renaissance.