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Righting the past's wrongs
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 15 - 04 - 2004

A decade after the end of apartheid in South Africa, there is still a long way to go to iron out the country's glaring inequalities, writes Gamal Nkrumah
Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki was destined to win yesterday's South African presidential poll. The result of the South Africa's third democratic election in the country's long and turbulent history is a foregone conclusion. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) now has no serious political rivals -- white or black.
Moreover, Mbeki is the person deemed most suited to tackling the country's prickliest problem, that of black empowerment. Born in 1942 to a family of stalwart anti- apartheid activists, President Mbeki has impeccable credentials for South Africa's top job. Not only is he pragmatic and unassuming, the trademark characteristics of Africa's new breed of democratically elected leaders, he remains untainted by corruption scandals that have now come to haunt South Africa's ruling cliques. Mbeki's own Vice President Jacob Zuma has come under investigation, however.
Black empowerment is Achilles's heel of South African politics. The contentious issue is inextricably intertwined with land redistribution. Black empowerment also touches on a wide range of educational, housing and health concerns. It even impacts the country's foreign policy -- the controversy surrounding Mbeki's handling of the Zimbabwean land crisis is a case in point.
The South African president is a son of the late Communist leader Govan Mbeki, and even though he lacks the popular charisma of a leader like Nelson Mandela, he still strives to be a man of the people.
On 14 April, South Africans went to the polls for the country's third democratic elections. The ANC hopes that Mbeki's landslide victory at the 2 June 1999 election will be repeated.
The country's black majority, especially those who inhabit rural areas, are unhappy with the slow pace of land reform and are yearning for the redistribution of land currently owned by whites. While few commentators expect the situation to develop along Zimbabwean lines, hardly anyone underestimates the ramifications of the unresolved land question in South Africa today.
Against the backdrop of the most predictable and lopsided political campaign in post-apartheid South Africa, serious challenges loom large: unemployment, HIV/ AIDS and the black demands for white land. These are colossal time bombs.
Now there is a chance for the ANC, with a third mandate to rule, to seize the initiative and correct the wrongs of the past.
What is the likelihood of that happening? "I think the next step is a break-up of the hegemony of the ANC," South Africa's celebrated poet-activist Breyten Breytenbach told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"It will happen half way through the second mandate of Thabo Mbeki. A struggle for the succession of Mbeki within the ANC will ensue. Political tensions are bound to increase," Breytenbach warned.
From the other side of the ideological divide, much the same sentiments are voiced, but for very different reasons. "What we need is opposition," former South African President FW de Klerk said on the eve of Wednesday's poll. "One party has more or less two thirds of the vote, with five or six parties fighting for the rest of the cake," de Klerk added. "This is not a healthy democracy."
Two factors seem likely to further complicate the attempts of the ANC to deliver a clear political agenda. The first of these is the lack of clarity and depth in public debates on the country's burning issues. Surely, the showcase of African democracy deserves better.
The downtrodden black majority, swindled out of power by apartheid, hopes the ANC will fulfil its pledge to increase public sector spending. Health, education and social welfare are issues that impact blacks far more than whites in South Africa. White South Africans are hoping for sound macro-economic policies. Blacks, on the other hand, want much more.
The third universal suffrage general election campaign witnessed important symbolic changes. Mbeki, previously regarded as somewhat distant and aloof, is making an effort to win the hearts and minds of young and old, rural and urban, black and white. He has even gone out of his way to court the country's other racial minorities. Last week he joined in celebrations of KwaZulu- Natal's Tamil New Year -- obviously wooing the province's economically dynamic Asian minority. It was a wise political move as KwaZulu-Natal is one of two provinces in South Africa that are not governed by the ANC. With 10 million people, KwaZulu- Natal is South Africa's most populous province and has been ruled since independence by the opposition ethnic Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party (IPF).
In past general elections, serious violent clashes erupted between supporters of the ANC and the IPF in KwaZulu-Natal. Today, violence has been largely contained. But, the ANC still wants to strengthen its political grip on the province's one million ethnic Asians.
Two other political parties, the Democratic Alliance and the New National Party, are commonly regarded as white preserves. They have failed to make inroads among the black electorate. The chances that they ever will are minimal. The ANC, meanwhile, continues to enjoy unrivalled support among the country's blacks.
South Africa's whites have become accustomed to political eclipse, while the vast majority of the country's blacks are still denied their full share of power and wealth. While blacks do finally have the vote, they are still hindered by many of the same problems that bedeviled them during apartheid.
A related issue, one that is more important on the national level, is the question of economic management. The South African economy is still in the hands of whites. Asians have an economic niche, but the black majority remains a disgruntled and disadvantaged lot.
The so-called "rainbow nation" of South Africa is a complex country. Racial and ethnic tensions have hardly subsided with the end of apartheid. The country presents a much more complicated political picture than it did a decade ago.
First and foremost, government policies must entwine the hopes of peoples traumatised by centuries of racial segregation and apartheid. The people of South Africa agree that the country faces serious challenges that must be dealt with urgently.
The ANC has commendably brought down the double-digit inflation figures of the closing years of apartheid to a manageable four per cent. But other problems persist. Joblessness is the scourge of black South Africa. The country has more than 30 per cent unemployment according to government figures -- and 40 per cent according to independent sources. Unemployment and combating HIV/AIDS must top the agenda of Mbeki's next government.
What the pessimists overlook is that South Africa is a country blessed with immense natural resources and wealth. Optimists believe that South Africa will overcome its problems in due course, and there is indeed a good chance that perhaps the most successful democracy on the African continent will persevere. But such promises will fail to materialise if young whites remain aloof, alienated and ripe for recruitment by neo-Nazis. After years in power, many whites found black rule to be a bitter pill to swallow, and complain of spiralling crime rates.
As South Africa goes to the polls again, these problems must be addressed. If Africa's wealthiest nation cannot manage its economic, social and health-related crises, it is hard to imagine how any of its far weaker neighbours will.


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