"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


the people's people

As South Africa prepares to celebrate 15 years since the end of apartheid, it's also showing the marks of disunity that are the hallmark of any truly democratic political system. The African National Congress is splitting and some people aren't behaving very well in the process. The country holds a general election later this month and the Cope ("Congress of the People") party - which was founded by former ANC members who support former president Thabo Mbeki and who don't like the likely future president, Jacob Zuma, one little bit - says that their members are being intimidated by the ANC.

There's little reason to doubt Cope's claims. None less than Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the moral voice of South Africa's liberation movement and the architect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, condemned actions by the ANC in on the radio last week. Tutu told listeners that the ANC one day will get its "comeuppance."

It's interesting how parties in power become corrupt so quickly, or if not overtly corrupt, then unwilling to allow dissent within or outside of their ranks. Many political parties that started out as military movements become just as repressive to their least-favored constituencies as their former tormentors were to them.

In the case of the ANC, it's been very difficult for anyone to publicly criticize the group for the last fifteen years. After all, the ANC is the group that ended apartheid. Its members fought a long, difficult struggle against a regime that was unequivocally in the wrong. It was led by Mandela.

But having had the moral high ground in the 1980's does not make a party forever immune to corruption. Indeed, there's some evidence that suggests that the ANC is anything but fair in the way it distributes resources in South Africa. Sarah Gray Knoesen, a graduate student in political science at UCSD, is doing fascinating work that (as of the last time I heard her present her work, in August) showsthat the ANC seems to distribute social services more rapidly to electoral districts that vote its members into power. Conversely, neighborhoods that vote for competitors may not get things like running water or electricity quite as quickly as do ANC-supportive districts.

I happen to believe that a little bit of tension is a natural part of growth into a consolidated democracy. Lest we forget, politicans here in the good ole U.S. of A. played nice and often pretended they liked each other for a few years following our war of liberation. But that fell apart quickly, and within fifteen years of the ratification of the Constitution, we had serious, competitive political parties vying for our votes and attention. The party machines that dominated politics in the pre-secret ballot, pre-civil service system era were engaged in far deeper forms of corruption than simply running sewer lines to one city before another. And despite the fact that we have a system of government that's a bit of a mess in terms of financing, providing adequate electoral choices, and day-to-day operations, it's far better than the known alternatives.

Here's hoping that the April 22 elections will help South Africa to move toward becoming a healthy multiparty system. And here's wishing that the ANC will realize that competition isn't a bad thing, because competition often inspires innovation and creativity that are much-needed in Pretoria and beyond. As the regional power and the economic engine of southern Africa, South Africa's just too big to fail.


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