How one man has brought South Africa’s democracy and Mandela’s “miracle” from honour to shame!
Last week I was in South Africa and listened to the disaster that blind faith in democracy can deliver to a country in form of bad leadership. President Jacob Zuma and his confederates have indulged in forms of theft and brigandage that expose the myth of the miracle Nelson Mandela is acclaimed to have delivered to that country. Friends in that nation’s intellectual and business community told me horror tales of mismanagement and corruption that make even Mobutu Sese Seko’s former Zaire face competition as the archetype of a predatory state.
Yet in spite (and precisely because) of his overt and crass thieving, Zuma holds fast on the presidency of both the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and South Africa. Attempts to remove him from the leadership of both the ruling party and nation have hit a snag as his opponents cannot muster the votes necessary to push through a motion of no confidence. Yet only ten years ago, the ANC found it easy to “recall” then sitting president – the cerebral and clean Thabo Mbeki – in a split second decision. Why does the ANC find it easy to remove a clean president but fails to eject one who is openly and blatantly a thug?
The American philosopher-historian Will Durant once said that there have only been three successful forms of government man has ever known. The first is monarchy/aristocracy i.e. rule by birth. This has been the most successful system of government for mankind since the evolution of states. The second is theocracy i.e. rule by religious clerics, which has also worked well historically. The third is democracy; which he defined as “rule by money”, and which has been a hectic interlude. Zuma’s survival only goes to prove Durant’s cynical view of democracy.
There is a naïve approach to democracy that is promoted by the Western powers and supported by Africa’s “intellectual” elites. This view tends to obsess with procedures and rituals of democracy even when they don’t perform any democratic function. Yet, in poor countries, democracy sometimes tends to eliminate public-spirited individuals from politics and instead promoted the most cunning and deceitful ones. We have witnessed this in Uganda since 1996 but it is most exemplified in India, as I will show below.
People like Zuma understand Africa’s politics better than the educated middleclass with a pretentious global intellectualism. For all his crass corruption, Zuma has actually held his base – the urban poor and rural masses. This is because although South Africa is the most industrialised country on the continent (its urban population is 64.3%) and has an equally large private sector and middleclass, it is still a poor country.
Zuma has never had a formal education. He, therefore, possibly has better political instincts about what works in a context of poverty that many middleclass African elites lack. He is openly polygamous, and doesn’t seem bothered by it as many of his educated colleagues in Africa are (and therefore hide their second and third wives and mistresses). Zuma knows, perhaps intuitively, that many voters do not distinguish the public finances of the state of South Africa from the private finances of its president.
This kind of Robin Hood politics was common in today’s rich countries when they were poor like us today. It is also common in India where hundreds of men facing serious criminal charges have enjoyed long and successful careers in politics – both at the national and state level. Today, criminals are so deeply embedded in India’s political life that democracy and electoral competition tends to strengthen, rather than lessen, their grip on power.
In his book, Rogue Elephant, Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy, Simon Denyer elaborates this point well. India’s corruption, like that of America and now Zuma’s South Africa, has entrenched itself through the financing of elections. For example, in India’s 2009 elections, voters elected 162 politicians who were facing criminal charges to the nation’s 545-member parliament, almost 30% of the total. Of these, 76 were facing charges of murder, rape and what is known as ‘dacoity’, crimes ranging from kidnapping to robbery and extortion.
Even more worryingly, Denyer says, the numbers are rising: in the previous election of 2004, 128 members of parliament facing criminal charges had been elected, of whom 58 were charged with the so-called “heinous crimes.” In 2012, Denyer went to cover elections in the state of Utter Pradesh. Of the 2000 candidates contesting for elections in the state, one third were facing criminal charges and 30 were running for office from jail. The problem is not democracy per se but an uncritical embrace of its procedures without taking into consideration the objective conditions in poor nations.
Zuma’s brazen form of thuggish politics seems to be becoming normal even in developed countries. In America, President Donald Trump maintains his support base intact in spite of (and may be also because of) myriads of self-inflicted never-ending scandals involving lies and corruption. This has baffled his opponents in the elite media and the republican establishment. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, rivals Trump and Zuma. He indulges in extra judicial killings and boasting about. He makes crass jokes about raping women. Right wing parties that are growing in support in Europe are led by such men and women.
Yet Zuma seems to have taken this too far. He is trying to find a second home outside South Africa and wrote to the ruler of Dubai asking to relocate there. So the president of this acclaimed democracy is planning to live outside his country when he leaves office in 2019. This should not be surprising since the country’s deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, openly said South Africa is becoming a mafia state. Zuma reacted to his critics inside ANC by warning them not to “push him too far” or else they “will see.”
Zuma’s support-base – rural voters and the urban poor – have remained solidly behind their man. This confirms my fear that democracy on Western lines tends to empower thieves and displace public-spirited politicians in poor countries. If South Africa is in trouble, it is because it embraced democracy blindly without subjecting it to the objective conditions in the country. If the South Africans want to overcome this mess, they will need to design their democracy in such a manner as to avoid it becoming a springboard for private profiteers.