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South Africa’s Changing Leadership

Taking a look and a lesson from across the ocean.

With the presidential election looming in the United States, and the resulting media circus which follows and to a certain degree, prompts the campaigns, much attention is diverted from pivotal elections in other parts of the world. Take for instance the forthcoming presidential elections in South Africa. 

In recent weeks, the ANC which is currently the country’s majority party, held its national party elections.  For the first time in its 58 year history, the party leadership was contested from within, and President Thabo Mbeki with less than 40% of the vote, was effectively given a vote of no confidence by party delegates.  Jacob Zuma with 60% of the vote won the party leadership and is well situated to become the next president of South Africa. This exercise of majority decision-making is significant in that it marks a continued evolution in the democratic processes of one of Africa’s most vital nations.  As the country moved from a system of Apartheid into a new era of equal representation and rights to participation, it is becoming a model to be watched, as a new paradigm for African nations and the world at large. No party or government is truly tested until the time comes to evaluate its own effectiveness or change its leadership. 

In much the same way, leadership is tested and evaluated.  Mr. Zuma is no stranger to this scrutiny.  His popularity made him a target within his own party, and he was sacked as deputy president over false allegations of corruption.  When those charges didn’t stick, his detractors accused him of rape.  He was later acquitted of both charges as it became apparent that he had been the victim of a decisive move to remove any challenge to Mbeki’s reelection campaigns. 

It seems Zuma’s qualities; charisma, leadership in the struggle against apartheid, and close ties to “the people,” make him popular among the masses but a pariah to the powerful.  In this way he is reminiscent of Winnie Mandela, who even now is highly regarded as the “Mother of the Nation”. 

Crowds of the needy and the voiceless, line the road to her home as she feeds, listens to, advises, and helps to lobby government on their behalf.  This is the same modus operandi which gained Mrs. Mandela wide spread support during her years in the trenches, as the ANC’s leadership struggled to organize the disenfranchised to resist and overcome oppressive government practices.  Because of her connections to rank and file South Africans, Winnie Mandela is still one of the most powerful politicians in the country to this day.  In fact, some say if she were to run for president tomorrow she could win. 

Thabo Mbeki could have taken a page from Winnie Mandela’s book.  Perhaps he should even still consult her directly.  To have gone from a unanimous vote-in to party leadership, down to a 40% vote of no confidence over two terms, shows a major disconnect from the constituency which put him in office.  Mbeki, a protégé of former President Mandela, represented the ANC abroad while in exile for twenty years, and is known for his cool somewhat detached style of governing. He has been generally viewed as good for the economy and relationships with other nations, but bad for his relationship with the poor and disenfranchised.        

Jump back to our own campaigns for the presidency, and we see similar scenarios taking place.  On the democratic side we see a rift starting to form within the party as the establishment candidate attempts to consolidate power in the face of a strong challenge from the well regarded freshman.  As in the case of Mbeki and the ANC, the establishment candidate used to be regarded as the embodiment of change.  But in much the same way, after 10 years in power, the people no longer seem to view candidate Clinton as someone who has their best interests at heart.  So while she may feel she has all the answers for the people, the people seem to feel that years close to power have left candidate Clinton jaded and somewhat aloof from the struggles of average Americans. 

Furthermore, the polls are showing her early lead quickly disappearing as her opposition does a better job of connecting with the people. Sure, she has a strong background and connection to present and former world leaders, but who does she owe and who is she beholden to?  The establishment candidate is trying to fall back on her experience and the popularity of her husband, the former president, but the constituents crave real change. 

Meanwhile her camp is resorting to attacks on the character of the strong contender as a means of consolidating support.  The lesson in this is that in a true democracy, politician’s egos can lead them to think that they enjoy popular support, or have all the answers, but without the power and the faith of the citizenry, they are powerless.  I’m sure that South Africa’s great matriarch Winnie Mandela would agree that when the people speak we all must listen. 

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Written By

Dr. Williams is a nationally syndicated columnist, former chairman of the economics department at George Mason University, and author of More Liberty Means Less Government

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