The election of Jacob Zuma as President of Africa’s richest and most sophisticated country, South Africa, once again manifests the pitfalls of democracy in Africa. Zuma was on trial for rape (but was acquitted) and corruption (charges of which still remain). If he was a candidate in Western democracies, it would have been extremely difficult for him to get a party nomination. Why then did South Africans embrace him in spite of ‘ or could it be because of ‘ his apparent poor moral standing?
Zuma’s political success is both intriguing and illuminating. During his rape trial, he said he had taken a shower after sleeping with an HIV-positive woman in order to remove the risk of infection.
He added that in Zulu culture, once a man has had foreplay with a woman and she is ‘turned on’, she has no right to withdraw her consent! Leaving her when she is ‘ready’, reasoned Zuma, would be tantamount to rape.
A significant section of the South African middle class was both revolted and embarrassedby this statement. But the vast majority of South Africa’s voting population was not bothered by Zuma’s shenanigans. They see in Zuma the real representative of their aspirations and dreams. To them, his sexual escapades and corruption charges are irrelevant. This is largely because part of his appeal is that Zuma does not seem to embrace the values ‘ and pretentions ‘ of the middle class. With his three official wives, he represents many things the middle class despises.
Apparently, our western values are at odds with values of the ‘popular classes’. Zuma is like Kampala Mayor Nasser Sebagala. Convicted of forgery in the USA, Sebagala was received as a hero upon his return to Uganda because people did not think he had done wrong. It would be difficult for a convicted felon to be elected in Western democracies. Yet Sebagala defeated Peter Sematimba in spite of the latter’s impressive policy agenda.
There is a conflict between the ethics of our public institutions and the moral values of our people. Those interested in the growth of democracy in Africa need to begin a conversation on this apparent contradiction. We must remember that for institutions to work they must be rooted in a people’s traditions. After six decades of the copy and paste approach to institution building, Africa needs some reflection.
The first and perhaps only person to address this contradiction was the Nigerian scholar, Peter Ekeh, in a 1975 article titled Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa. Ekeh argued that in Western societies, the public realm, i.e. the sphere of state action, and the private realm share a common moral foundation. In other words, what is considered morally right or wrong privately is also considered right or wrong in public office. Ekeh’s argument is that Christian beliefs (and I would add capitalism) created a common private and public ethic. In post-independence Africa, the ethics that govern public institutions were introduced through colonial conquest. For Ekeh, this public realm has no links with the private realm and is therefore amoral.
This conflict is best captured by the story of Mathew Rukikaire. In 2005, he fell critically ill. When President Yoweri Museveni heard the news, he ordered his evacuation for medical attention abroad on a chartered plane. State House could not raise all the required money, so Museveni asked then Minister of Health, Jim Muhwezi, to top it up. The Ministry of health did not have money at hand so Muhwezi ordered it from the Global Fund. Here is a clear case of using public office to serve a private goal, i.e. corruption.
If this story were told to ordinary Ugandans, Baganda would exclaim: ‘omusajja alina ekisa’; Banyankole, ‘omushaija aine embabazi’; Batoro, ‘omusaija aine embabazi’, meaning the President is a very kind man who acted correctly. A clear act of abuse of office elicits popular acceptance. It seems apparent, therefore, that a purely democratic process is likely to sustain a lot of corruption in Africa. That is why electoral competition in Uganda favors politicians who share their loot with the masses.
In South Africa’s case, matters are even more complicated because of the racial distribution of wealth. For many years, black people were systematically kept in abject poverty by Apartheid. But when a transition to majority rule was being negotiated, the white propertied class negotiated for a democratic constitution which protected their wealth. Yet many South Africans feel that this wealth was created criminally. So whites defend their inherited position using the language of rights (right to property) while the dispossessed African majority insist on social justice.
This conflict propelled Zuma to the presidency as a voice of the dispossessed in South Africa. Yet he seems inclined to maintain the status quo. Possibly he has learnt the costs of an attempt to redress such historical injustice by revolutionary means from the experience of Zimbabwe (or Uganda in 1972). Expropriation tends to create a lose-lose situation. He may therefore tread the reform ground with care.
Accumulated injustice cannot be solved by revolutionary means in one night. It takes generations of slow, incremental change to make a difference. But if Zuma were cornered politically and he needed to reinvent his popular base, he could go the Robert Mugabe way and spearhead massive redistribution of wealth. Such political posturing would bring him incredible support while destroying the health of the South African economy.
To succeed, Zuma will need to skillfully balance the demands of his popular base against the pressures of those who control wealth in South Africa (who are largely white) and the powerful international forces of the West who share a common cultural and racial affinity with them. How well he does it, we are yet to see. But the tension is real.
A similar situation confronted post genocide Rwanda ‘ whether to seek justice or reconciliation. Rwanda sought reconciliation by first postponing the exercise of freedoms, for example press freedom, that propagated the genocide. South Africa has promoted democratic rights at the expense of social justice. But the demands from below are threatening the current consensus. Will Zuma go the Mugabe or the Mandela way?