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Posted December 28, 2008
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Early American Echoes in South Africa?
mandela & co
APPEARANCES ARE DECEIVING Jacob Zuma, left, and Thabo Mbeki, right, celebrate the birthday of Nelson Mandela shortly before Mr. Zuma's supporters forced out Mr. Mbeki as South Africa's president.
If Nelson Mandela was South Africa’s George Washington, Thabo Mbeki was his John Adams — a short, touchy, fiercely intelligent infighter doomed to labor in the shadow of the great man. Skip to next paragraph Enlarge This Image

Jerome Delay/Associated Press APPEARANCES ARE DECEIVING Jacob Zuma, left, and Thabo Mbeki, right, celebrate the birthday of Nelson Mandela shortly before Mr. Zuma’s supporters forced out Mr. Mbeki as South Africa’s president.

Jacob Zuma, who is expected soon to be the third democratically elected president of Africa’s most influential country, is no Thomas Jefferson — though he, like Jefferson, may ultimately play an important (if unwitting) role in the birth of a real two-party system in a nascent democracy.

Right now, South Africa is effectively a one-party state. Since the first democratic elections in 1994, the share of Parliament controlled by the African National Congress, the party of Mr. Mandela, Mr. Mbeki and Mr. Zuma, has increased to 69.7 percent from 63 percent. With that majority, the party can pass any law or even rewrite the country’s remarkable Constitution.

With that level of support, Mr. Zuma can crush efforts to limit his power. That trend has already started, with the disbanding of the Scorpions anticorruption unit; libel suits against Mr. Zuma’s critics including political cartoonists; and open expressions of disgust at judges by party officials.

Three months ago, Archbishop Desmond Tutu pointed out the danger, saying the party needed “a viable opposition” because “democracy flourishes where there is a vigorous debate.”

Days after he said that, a faction of the A.N.C. broke away to form a new party, the Congress of the People, known as COPE. On its shoulders may well rest the fate of a viable two-party system.

Only a month earlier, Mr. Mbeki had left the A.N.C. after losing a long power struggle with Mr. Zuma. His popularity was low; his free-market policies did not shrink the country’s unemployment rate; and his opposition to AIDS drugs put the blame for thousands of deaths on him.

The new COPE party is not Mbeki-centric — he has not even joined. Rather, its leaders worry that Mr. Zuma is undermining the rule of law.

Mr. Zuma has avoided conviction on charges of taking bribes from arms merchants and raping a young woman, but trial testimony in no way made him sound like the innocent victim of false charges.

The defectors are not selfless — Mr. Zuma had ousted many of them from patronage jobs.

To a correspondent who arrived in South Africa in 1995, it was obvious, even in the midst of the celebrations of majority rule, that the only long-term hope for democracy was for the bouncing birthday boy, the African National Congress, to tear itself apart.

I never imagined this being even thinkable while Nelson Mandela was alive. But he is now 90, and rarely comments on party politics.

And the A.N.C.’s rivals have been feeble. Before 1994 they were essentially tribal, as is sadly true of most African political parties. The National Party was for white Afrikaners; the remnants of the former Progressive Party for white English-speakers; the Inkatha Freedom Party for Zulu nationalists, and so on.

While the A.N.C. was sometimes pigeonholed as the party of the Xhosa, the tribe of Mr. Mandela and Mr. Mbeki, it really was, as it boasted, “a big tent.” The Mandela and Mbeki cabinets included members of all ethnic groups.

Now the old tribalism has been replaced by issues — honest government, less crime, more housing, more jobs. It is high time.

When King George’s men sailed out of New York City in 1783, the split between the two parties, Tory and Patriot, became meaningless. But George Washington was nonpartisan, and it took time for prominent Patriots to divide into new factions.

By the early 1790s, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams were leading the Federalists, the businessman’s party favoring strong central government. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison headed the Democratic-Republicans, the party of farmers, states rights and neutrality toward Europe.

Whether or not rebirth by meiosis succeeds in South Africa won’t be known for some time. Which tottering parties, if any, ask to join COPE will affect its image among black voters. And, since its founders, Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa (once better known as Terror and Sam), are not exactly up to Hamiltonian or Jeffersonian standards, more important will be which, if any, new defectors it attracts.

Not only has Mr. Mbeki not yet joined, but neither have the liberation struggle heroes he sidelined in his own rise to power like Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale. But the unthinkable — an endorsement of the new party by Archbishop Tutu or even by Mr. Mandela himself — would completely change the game.

Steven Friedman, a veteran analyst of South African politics, has called a party split “the only way we are going to have competitive democracy.” But he said he did not expect COPE to threaten the A.N.C. at the polls under its current leaders.

More crucial for democracy will be whether violence ensues.

In the streets, South African politics has an ugly legacy. The apartheid-era police turned their guns on crowds, and just before the 1994 election, perhaps 10,000 blacks died in political and ethnic fighting.

Recent COPE meetings have been broken up by A.N.C. thugs. The leader of the A.N.C. Youth League — a position Mr. Mandela held decades ago — has threatened to “take up arms and kill for Zuma.” His colleagues keep calling COPE followers “cockroaches” — the Hutu epithet for Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide. The old guerrilla anthem Lethu Mshini Wami (“Bring Me My Machine Gun”) is sung by pro-Zuma crowds and Mr. Zuma himself called his rivals “witches,” who, in Zulu tradition, were killed by stakes driven into their anuses. The tone is very dangerous.

However, it is worth remembering that the transition from white to black rule in 1994 defied pessimists by avoiding a civil war. Perhaps the next step toward democracy can do so, too.

After all, after Washington’s election, the United States avoided one for 70 years.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Week in Review, of Sunday, December 28, 2008.
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