Living up to the Legend

The narratives of nations are often told through the biographies of great men. The annals of history channeling the trials of men who dared to draw lines in the sand, those who chose not to merely sit but to stand, and in doing, drew straying eyes to relevant truths. Those who dared to dream, standing firm against indignity. Those who wished it so, and in doing so changed the game through will and testament.

Tomes are written about such men. And in legend writ their legacy. But there are chapters being written, in the here and now, which will deem whether the singular promise of a unified South Africa will ever make it to reality. Today South Africans live under a government that is in political turmoil, divided down ever increasing  ethnic lines. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) have seen many senior members leave after publicly announcing that they want nothing to do with controversial leader Jacob Zuma or the party that he has tarnished with his premiership. Tomorrow these dissatisfied few will formally announce the formation of a new party; Congress Of The People or COPE. What this means is that for the first time since its first democratically held elections in 1994, there will be a viable challenge to the ANC and the dominant-party system that it holds reign. This, the unwritten inheritance of Mandela's South Africa, is to be tested.

The Heirs to his Legacy - Key Players:

An almost Shakspearean history lies behind these three faces. The complex narrative of the political and personal give an indicator as to how South Africa has descended into the mire of madness. Where next the country is headed could equally be mined from the actions these three men dare to take from here.

Jacob Zuma (left) is a populist who has rallied support within leftist constituencies and has maintained support from the youth league and among Zulus, the tribe form which he originates. He was dismissed from his post as Deputy-President in 2005 after allegations of corruption. In the same year a 31 year old daughter of a former ANC member came forward and accused Zuma of rape. During the course of the hearings Zuma confessed to consensual sex with the girl having known that she was HIV positive at the time. He attempted to fend off criticism by claiming he had a shower afterward to 'reduce the risk of infection'. He spoke these ludicrous words while he was the head of the National AIDS Council in South Africa. In the end both charges were dropped however, and Zuma retained his strong support within the ANC and remained popular among South Africa's young and less well off. His past as an aggressive ANC activist during the apartheid era has stuck even during the darkest of times. He has been the target of lampooning for his comments during his trial and was hit with harsh criticism from all sides but in the fallout following his acquittal, his stock would rise in contrast to his critics.

Thabo Mbeki (centre) has had his critics also. He is at the ideological middle ground in policies and has from the very beginning of his tenure been dogged by his aloof presidential style; an apparent tendency to be an elitist in the party of the people will always be a problem.  He is seen as the diametric opposite of Zuma in personality and policy and they are now seen by many as sworn enemies. His political critics aim squarely at his acquiescence to big business at the expense of the poor and the unions as another contrast between him and the socialist leaning Zuma. After Zuma's acquittal Mbeki got hit the hardest publicly. His decision to 'go after' Zuma with corruption charges painted the picture of political maneuvering with Mbeki ruthlessly snuffing out threats to his power by wiping out Zuma politically. It had almost worked but he had failed and now he was not to be trusted even by those nearest to him. Power had deserted him and at the 52nd ANC national convention leadership elections he was beaten by his nemesis and resigned shortly after.

Mosiuoa Lekota (right) and Mbeki seem to have more in common than not. Both were former inmates of Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, and both were at the heart of the resistance movement with Mandela during the 1980's.  Lekota had from the start outlined himself as a 'conviction' politician. He made his name popular with the media by calling out corruption and immorality even within his own party. This made him a threat to Mbeki early on. During the tentative years of the ANC's first administration, they soon became fierce rivals and as Mbeki became heir apparent to Mandela's leadership, Lekota became more and more sidelined. By 1999 he was marginalized into obscurity and the 'left', after he so vehemently criticized Mbeki's allies, saw him as somewhat of a martyr. It was not until the furor over Zuma's corruption and rape allegations where Lekota once again returned to stake his moral claim on decency, that the left quickly turned on him too.

Roots in Division

Many this time last year saw events in South Africa as a watershed moment in its history, the election results saw incumbent and President Thabo Mbeki lose to a man who only two years before had been sacked after being embroiled in corruption and rape charges. Jacob Zuma and his political allies were swept into power of the ANC party in December 2007. Many across the world looked at South Africa then and asked; how on earth did they go from Nelson Mandela to a man like Jacob Zuma? The consternation within his own party was such that almost immediately high ranking members followed Mosiuoa Lekota's resignation and left themselves. The reasons for the split stem from three main factors:

  • Tribal allegiances
  • Economic left and right policies
  • Democratic succession

The defeat of Mbeki by Zuma in 2007 made clear the stark differences between the two sides emerging within the ANC. Such was the nature of the allegations against him that pro-Zuma and anti-Zuma factions emerged as a result. These divides could be easily be judged to be tribal, Zuma has a large base among Zulus and Mbeki by default has the Xhosa tribes support. But it is important to look beyond narrow tags and see this apparent divide as systematic of broader social concerns within South Africa as a whole. During Mbeki's premiership he was responsible in driving a development policy using conventional, conservative strategies that resulted in unprecedented economic growth. But after advocating commitments to open markets and privatization, whilst continuing GDP growth, unemployment actually dramatically increased between 1996 and 2006. This unemployment negated any capacity to develop the state and in turn has resulted in the crime rate at an all time high. South Africans know there is something wrong when they win to bid the World Cup 2010 while the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. Pro-Zuma factions have used this and used it well, they have allied with the trade unions and have championed re-distribution of wealth, by default this puts the ANC back to the left and COPE to the centre.

Perhaps it is too early to analyse the party before it is officially exists. But the very fact that there is a choice at all is welcomed by many. Without a Mandela as the figurehead of the ANC, the ANC is not the searing beacon of justice and hope it once was, and now with Zuma as its leader, some would say it ensures the necessity for an alternative. Mosiuoa Lekota, who has been at once within and without the ANC on many occasions, is now planning a democratic coup to recapture South Africa, accusing the ANC of 'eliminating democracy from within'. During those years on Robben Island Lekota acquired the nickname 'Terror' for his prowess on the football field. Whether Terror Lekota will emerge from Mandela's shadow and assume the weighted reigns of the leadership of South Africa, and do what Mbeki couldn't, makes for an intriguing next chapter.

Unfinished Chapters

South African politics has been going through a self-perception crisis since Mandela departed in 1999. Come the next election early next year, they will try and place the first decade without Mandela in its historic context both economically and socially. The catastrophe of its handling of the AIDS epidemic looms large, poverty and crime adds to the sense of frustration. Any democratic gains seem modest next to these deplorable failures. Looking forward it will have to take stock and account for these failures and speak to the disconnected and disenfranchised and learn to heal once again. Internationally too, whether it is the ANC or COPE, when ethnic tensions spill over into neighboring nations (Rwanda and DRC) especially with their dealings with Mugabe, it is essential that South Africa set their stall out on the global debate once and for all.

This July Mandela turned 90. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that we, from the outside looking in, hold him to such a standard that we demand his countrymen to  posess that same aura of affirmation. The Mbekis and the Zumas will never do for us. We hold them to a mirror of a living legend. We dare to dream of more Mandelas but there are none. And there hasn't been for a while.

Instead dare to act. As he dared to act on the day he took those first steps to freedom, a clenched fist shading his eyes from the glare of a new dawn, believing that one day his Africa would heal and finally begin to testify to his promise.