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April 27, 2009
Measuring South Africa’s progress since apartheid

African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma.

Last week, South Africa went to the polls in the country’s fourth national elections since the end of apartheid. According to final results announced Saturday, the ruling African National Congress won, though it fell short of a two-thirds majority

The ANC has faced increased criticism in recent months, often centering on party president Jacob Zuma, who had faced charges of fraud and corruption, though they were dropped. 

Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner measures South Africa’s progess, however imperfect the country and its leaders may still be. 

South Africa’s president-elect, Jacob Zuma, capped off his remarkable political resurgence last week in another solid victory for the African National Congress. His election victory can be viewed in more than one way.

In one sense, it was an endorsement of his charismatic style and a confirmation of the ANC’s prominence in the 15 years since the ascension of Nelson Mandela and the collapse of apartheid. Zuma will take office in May as a result of nationwide balloting that took place peacefully and without incident.

The unfortunate way of viewing the South African election would be to overemphasize unfair complaints that South Africa has not progressed much since the end of apartheid.

South Africa is a vastly different country from what it was under white minority racist rule. Despite persistent poverty and unemployment, South Africa today is a truly democratic state, and the African National Congress has accomplished much. If it is not enough to say that the country’s 80+ percent black population lives now freely and with dignity, the ANC’s other successes are significant. Even the poorest of South Africans have benefits their families could not dreamed of a generation ago.

There is much work to be done, especially in the areas of health care and education, but the ANC has established social programs, provided housing and some basic needs such as electricity to millions of South Africa’s 49 million people.

The ANC came just short of winning a two-thirds absolute majority in the South African parliament, meaning Zuma will have to negotiate and work hard to win over skeptics. Meanwhile, he comes to office at a tough time for any world leader –- South Africa is deeply affected by the world recession and financial issues will be key. He’ll he hard-pressed to follow through on his basic promise: “an equitable, sustainable and inclusive growth path.”

Among the skeptics are some members of his own party, where former leader Thabo Mbeki once stripped him of the role of deputy president because of corruption charges. The corruption charges have since been withdrawn and Zuma has also faced and been acquitted of rape charges.

Phillip Van Niekirk, a prominent South African journalist, notes that even South Africa’s white Afrikaner minority, responsible for the apartheid system, largely prefers Zuma to Mbeki.

“When talking to the business community, foreign dignitaries or journalists, Zuma can be equally impressive. He has great personal warmth and is lucid on the challenges ahead. He wants a crackdown on crime and corruption, greater accountability from politicians and office bearers and a concerted effort to deal with the country’s neglected education and health systems.”

– Peter Eisner

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Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

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