South Africa's Ruling-Party Turmoil: A Boost for Democracy?

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Gianluigi Guercia / AFP/ Getty

The South African National Assembly after speaker Baleka Mbete read President Thabo Mbeki's letter of resignation on Sept. 22

Good guerrillas often make indifferent democrats. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe may be the clearest proof that the very qualities that make an effective insurgent army — discipline, secrecy, command authority and a limit on dissent — are anathema to good governance in peacetime. South Africa's African National Congress (ANC) has not escaped this conundrum. Nelson Mandela managed the transition from rebel commander to responsible national leader with an ease that, with hindsight, was deceptive. The power struggle between the two ANC leaders who followed him — President Thabo Mbeki and his former deputy, Jacob Zuma — and the extent to which each would respect the rules of the democratic game, has been viewed as nothing less than a test of strength for democracy in Africa.

On Sept. 13 Judge Chris Nicholson ruled that prosecutors had not followed proper legal procedure when charging Zuma with corruption in connection with an arms deal. Although Nicholson was ruling on a technicality rather than on the merits of the allegations against Zuma, he noted that the state might have acted hastily because of "baleful political interference," a reference to Mbeki. The finding cleared the way for Zuma to ascend to the presidency during a general election next year, and it spurred the ANC leadership to force Mbeki's resignation, expected to be made formal on Sept. 25. It also capped a remarkable comeback for Zuma, 65, who was sacked by Mbeki, 66, as his deputy in 2005 and charged with rape and corruption shortly afterward. He was acquitted of the rape charge in 2006, and he defeated Mbeki in a vote for the presidency of the ANC in late 2007. Game, set and match Zuma, many commentators concluded. Score one for democratic checks and balances, added some.

But Zuma's victory left a sour taste. His supporters have long claimed that the prosecution of their candidate was politically motivated, and Judge Nicholson's ruling gave that claim judicial authority. Still, at least one of Zuma's backers has also been accused of trying to interfere with the judicial process: in May, the Constitutional Court issued a statement that Zuma supporter Judge John Hlophe had made "an improper attempt to influence this court" in connection with the corruption case. And the tenor of some comments from the Zuma camp have been closer to that of rebels than of rulers. In July, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said the Constitutional Court was showing signs of being "counterrevolutionary." That came after ANC Youth League president Julius Malema said he was prepared to "kill" for Zuma. And then there's the fact that Nicholson's judgment does nothing to resolve the question of Zuma's guilt or innocence. Zuma's former financial adviser, Shabir Shaik, is currently serving 15 years after being convicted of bribing Zuma, and state prosecutors plan to appeal the Nicholson judgment. They also have the option of refiling the charges.

The ANC's political infighting may not mean much in policy terms. Zuma, who has little formal education, will leave policymaking to others. And while Mbeki's defeat last year signaled a swing to the left, Zuma has also spent much of the past year reassuring local and foreign investors that he is committed to Mbeki's free-market stance, which has seen robust economic growth of around 5% for years. (He has also promised to tackle South Africa's enduring social inequality and raging violent crime, and to take a tougher line on Mugabe.)

The importance of continuity in economic policy was underlined on Tuesday, when news broke that 11 Cabinet ministers, including the highly respected Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, had resigned. That sent share prices and the rand tumbling, though the value of the currency had recovered slightly by day's end, after Manuel made clear that his move was simply a formality and that he remains willing to serve a new administration.

Even if the ANC manages to emerge intact from the leadership bloodletting, the party's status will have been irreversibly diminished. Under Mandela, the party had no peer anywhere in the world by measure of moral authority. That was good for it, but bad for democracy. The ANC began to consider itself above reproach, an attitude that found its fullest expression in Mbeki's aloof leadership — he refused to explain himself or allow his decisions to be questioned, and once famously requested that South Africans simply trust him when one of his allies, the national police chief, was linked to a gangster. A string of scandals over corruption, incompetence and abuse of power has dragged the ANC down to the point where, though it is in no danger of losing power, it no longer enjoys the moral and political authority it had under Mandela.

After Mbeki's resignation, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu — the country's other voice of conscience alongside Mandela — said he was "deeply disturbed" at the manner in which recent events showed "that the nation, the state, South Africa, has been subordinated to a political party." As Tutu noted, however, "Even the most powerful parties bite the dust at some point." The ANC will dominate South Africa for years to come, but the decline of Africa's most famous liberation movement has begun — and that, paradoxically, can only be good for freedom.

(Click here to see images of anti-immigrant violence in South Africa earlier this year.)