South Africa @ 20: Corruption, Freedom And A 1-Party State

South Africa @ 20: Corruption, Freedom And A 1-Party State

South Africa celebrated a national milestone April 27, 2014, marking the 20th anniversary of the country’s transition to democracy.

Two decades ago the first democratic elections swept the long-imprisoned Nelson Mandela into the presidential palace and his African National Congress into the National Assembly. In this continuing AFKInsider exclusive mini-series, we examine how African states have progressed, both economically and politically, since major events in their history.

Earlier this month, as Rwanda celebrated two decades since the end of genocide, we examined the country’s economy and politics (here and here).

Part one of the South African series focused on the country’s economy, which, while moving forward at breakneck speed following the isolation of apartheid sanctions, has left much of the population in poverty. In this piece, we focus on South African governance.

While the country is a shining beacon of human rights and stability in sub-Saharan Africa, the African National Congress, the party of Mandela, has dominated politics as a one-party state.

In the four elections for National Assembly since 1994 the ruling African National Congress received 62 percent-or-more of the vote. This has amounted to majorities of 252, 252, 279 and 264 members of the 400-member body.

As the assembly is also responsible for electing the country’s president after elections, post-apartheid South Africa has yet to see a president from a party other than the ANC.

Despite, or perhaps due to, the party’s electoral monopoly, there have been significant accusations of corruption and incompetence within the party.

In one of the more troubling examples of ineptness at the highest levels, Thabo Mbeki, a two-term president and Nelson Mandela’s successor, rejected scientific consensus regarding the link between HIV and AIDS, leading to institutional treatment difficulties.

A Harvard study from 2008 alleged that due to the prevalence of HIV and AIDS in South Africa, Mbeki’s rejection of scientific facts led directly to the premature death of 330,000 people and the preventable mother-to-child transmission of 35,000 babies.

Beyond the high level incompetence arecorruption scandals that have gripped the party leadership.

In the most recent example, President Jacob Zuma is embroiled in a scandal surrounding $23-million taxpayer-funded upgrades to his private residence. While the additions were described as “security upgrades,” many have their doubts.

Former U.S. ambassador John Campbell, described one example to Voice of America, saying “there is a swimming pool that is being characterized as a water source for fire prevention…”

Despite the high-level incompetence and seemingly institutionalized corruption, the African National Congress should be lauded for bringing the country from apartheid and tremendous civil discord to a modern, democratic society that respects human rights.

According to Freedom House, a Washington-based think-tank that monitors freedom in the world, South Africa is a free country in a region where only 12 percent countries meet freedom criteria. This has been true for the country in all 20 years of African National Congress rule unlike during apartheid.

Credit is also deserved for the stability of the democratic system. In a region where non-democratic transfer of power is all too common, under the African National Congress the country has held two decades of inclusive, democratic elections. This has occurred despite dire predictions of many analysts two decades ago, including predictions of civil war, atrocity or Zimbabwe-style minority oppression.

While South Africa has been a mark of stability in a region too often dominated by extra-constitutional means of leadership change, the lack of meaningful challenge to the ANC has created allegations of corruption and incompetence at the highest levels of governance.

The country will face elections again May 7 that will mark the first time South Africans born after the end of apartheid can choose a leader. There is a potential that new voters, who have experienced the ANC only will choose to go in a different direction. The youth voters may see the ANC as a governing party that failed to bring widespread prosperity it promised, that is corrupt, and that is in sharp contrast to the freedom fighters of their parents’ generation.

There is perhaps no better illustration of the dual nature of success and failure than Zuma’s recent visit to Malamulele in the country’s far northeast. After being harassed and jeered by fed-up citizens as he promised to listen to their complaints, his motorcade sped off while South African reporters at the scene reported children chasing it chanting “Zuma sucks.”

On one hand, there are precious few sub-Saharan countries that would allow taunting of leaders and this level of citizen criticism. In this area, the last two decades of governance have been a success in South Africa, leading to stability and respect for human rights.

However, the African National Congress and Zuma have failed to bring widespread prosperity and have been accused of corruption and incompetence. Even while it is a positive development that children can chase the president’s motorcade chanting “Zuma sucks,” it is possible that when it comes to the needs and gripes of ordinary South Africans, they are right.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at afriedm2@gmail.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.