Commentary

The New South African President

The African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party, meets this week to select its new leader. Reports indicate that Jacob Zuma, the left-leaning former deputy president of South Africa who was fired in 2005 after allegations of corruption, has garnered enough support to unseat current president Thabo Mbeki in the ANC’s top job.

Zuma will likely become South Africa’s next president when the general election is called in 2009. Although South Africa is politically and economically freer than it was under apartheid, serious challenges remain. Zuma will need to try new ways of addressing them.

According to the United Nations, HIV/AIDS afflicts 19% of South Africans between the ages of 15 and 49, and many doubt the government’s commitment to fighting it. Thabo Mbeki, the current president, refuses to talk about the disease, and his firing of popular and capable Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge suggests that he values personal loyalty over professional ability. That also explains why Jackie Selebi, who failed to make a dent in South Africa’s murder rate — which remains nine times higher than that of the United States — and who is under indictment for links with organized crime, remains South Africa’s police commissioner. The country needs a president who does not mock the citizens’ concern over crime.

Although South Africa is politically and economically freer than it was under apartheid, serious challenges remain.”

The parliamentary oversight of the ever-stronger executive is woefully inadequate. The electoral system of proportional representation allows political parties, rather than constituencies, to select their candidates for parliament. That arrangement has allowed the ANC to fill the government benches with scores of toadies who tolerate ministerial mismanagement and corruption out of fear for their jobs.

At the same time, many members of the public refrained from criticizing the Mbeki government because they worried about being accused of lack of patriotism or even racism. On the upside, the contest for the ANC presidency has led to the first genuine country-wide debate about the pros and cons of individual candidates.

Corruption has billowed under Mbeki. Part of the reason for that increase is the conflict between the content of South Africa’s much-admired constitution and the realities of the ANC’s self-styled “national democratic revolution.” The constitution contains plenty of checks and balances.

In contrast, the ANC’s politicies saw a Putin-style placement of the party’s supporters into all the watchdog roles and positions of oversight. The ANC has mimicked the same approach in the private sector, pressuring the country’s large businesses to appoint its supporters into senior positions. The hegemonic impulses of the ruling party have cost South Africa much in terms of economic efficiency and erosion of the rule of law. Whether the ethically compromised Zuma can set that to rights remains uncertain.

If South Africa is to succeed as a multi-racial society, the new president will have to repudiate the racially divisive rhetoric that marked much of the Mbeki presidency. With some one million white South Africans leaving the country over the last decade, Nelson Mandela’s “rainbow nation” is becoming less colorful. The large but inefficient public sector is beset by skills shortages and frequent protests among the intended recipients of public services — the vast majority of whom are black — which show that Mbeki’s race-based electioneering was not only unethical but self-defeating.

The new president should have the courage to adopt economic reforms that result in faster economic growth. South Africa’s money-guzzling, public-private corporations, like South African Airways, which gets billions of rands in annual subsidies, ought to be privatized.

The new president should also liberalize the labor market. In spite of a growing economy, rigid labor laws keep unemployment stubbornly high, at 26%. Worryingly, the number of people in South Africa who live in absolute poverty doubled between 1994 and 2007. Unfortunately, Zuma may be too beholden to the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which was very supportive of his candidacy, to do what is necessary.

Abroad, South African foreign policy is increasingly puzzling and at variance with the ANC’s stated commitment to the promotion of human rights. Mbeki has done much to foster peace in Africa, but his international moralizing is at odds with the policies pursued by his foreign-policy mandarins. The ANC cozies up to dictators from Burma and Cuba to Libya and Zimbabwe while at the same time criticizing the American and Israeli foreign policies. For the ANC to criticize American foreign-policy mistakes while shielding Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe from international scorn is hypocritical and then some.

South Africa remains Africa’s dominant economy and its largest democracy. In spite of the mistakes of Mr. Mbeki’s presidency, the country’s potential remains great. To unleash it, the new president must do a better job than the last.

Tony Leon is the former leader of the Democratic Alliance and the former leader of South Africa’s parliamentary opposition. He is a fellow at the Institute of Politics, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Marian L. Tupy is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity and author of the study “Troubling Signs for South African Democracy Under the ANC.”