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South Africa: The Democracy That Will Not Die

Just three weeks ago, Via Meadia lamented the appointment of a South African crony as the head of the anti-corruption agency called the Special Investigating Unit (SIU). William Heath was part of now-President Zuma’s advisory team when he himself battled accusations of corruption over a huge arms deal, and Heath’s appointment to the SIU raised concerns that he could use his role to shelter Zuma and Co. from future corruption charges and that the state structures that fight corruption and cronyism were being undermined from within.

But just two weeks into his new job, on December 15, Heath tendered his resignation. The FT reports:

The consternation at Mr. Heath’s appointment increased after he gave an interview to South Africa’s City Press published on December 4 in which he said [former president] Mr. Mbeki ‘initiated Zuma’s prosecution—not only as far as the corruption charges were concerned, but also on the rape case.’

The rape charges against Zuma were dropped in 2006, the corruption charges in 2009.  These days President Zuma still has his run-ins with the courts.  His pick as head of the National Prosecuting Authority was booted by an appeals court and his administration’s relations with the judiciary remain uneasy.

President Zuma has enemies to his right and his left.  To the right are the courts, much of the English language press and the political opposition, who worry that the ANC’s huge national majority combined with economic populism will undermine both democratic institutions and the capitalist economy that have shaped South Africa since the fall of apartheid.

To the left there are the angry populists, trade unionists, and the poor and the landless who remain destitute and marginalized even as a small section of the black population has joined the elite.  Zuma and those around him seem tempted by the prospect of clamping down on the press and subordinating the non-political elements of the state to party rule the better to defend the entrenched black elite — and its white and international allies — from the populists.

The business, press and professional elites are, correctly in the VM view, rejecting this devil’s bargain by and large.  They see the danger of the consolidation of personalistic rule in South Africa and they intend to defend the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the press — even at the risk of creating opportunities for the economic populists and race hustlers who, in office, might seriously threaten the economic status quo.  Fortunately for South Africa, support for this position is not confined to a relative handful of mostly white elites; there are many people in the country who can look at places like Zimbabwe for lessons in the importance of defending the press and the judiciary.

South African democracy is one of the world’s more improbable success stories, and its future can never be taken for granted.  It is a little bit like a giraffe; if you hadn’t seen one you would never imagine that it was possible.

The peaceful transition to majority rule and the establishment of an orderly majority government under Nelson Mandela was one of the political miracles of the twentieth century.  That this miracle continues to inspire so many South Africans under such difficult conditions remains a great blessing and a sign of hope to Africa and the world.

The Republic of South Africa is one of the countries Via Meadia will be watching in 2012; the battle for South Africa’s future has implications far beyond its frontiers.

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  • AndeeVee

    Just a correction. The rape charges were not dropped. Zuma went on trial and was aquitted of the charge of rape.

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