Laura Mitchell on the South African Elections

Laura J. Mitchell, author of Belongings: Property, Family, and Identity in Colonial South Africa, An Exploration of Frontiers, 1725- c. 1830, recently contributed an article to Huffington Post about the upcoming elections in South Africa.

Despite its many problems South Africa has stood as a kind of beacon of democracy in contrast to the brutal one-man rule that often characterizes the governments of its African neighbors. However, as Mitchell argues the situation in South Africa is becoming increasingly precarious. Government corruption, poverty, and a spiraling AIDS/HIV crisis all threaten the stability of the country.

The likely winner of the election Jacob Zuma, head of the African National Congress (ANC) has populist appeal and speaks to the problems of the working-classes but is also dogged by charges of corruption and suspect political tactics, not to mention his refusal to seriously confront the issue of HIV/AIDS. Mitchell concludes her piece by speaking to some of these contradictions in Zuma’s positions:

Although Zuma’s critics point out his shortcomings, he offers an alternative within the ANC, reaching beyond the small black middle class that has benefited greatly from post-1994 changes while workers have not. As Ronald Reagan reminded US voters in 1980, we should not be surprised when a majority that feels underserved opts for change.

It is, however, disturbing when the fruits of that change seem decidedly undemocratic. Zuma’s disregard for the rule of law is evident. His admitted disregard for safer sex in a country where HIV/AIDS remains epidemic is more telling. Zuma has populist appeal, but believing himself to be immune from a virus indicates the degree to which he thinks himself different from ordinary folk.

Also worrisome, Zuma takes umbrage at public critiques. Last year he sued a political cartoonist. Recently the ANC denounced mock election posters as “desperate attempts by mischievous forces of darkness.”

Name-calling is an old democratic tradition, but invoking sorcery is a chilling reminder of justifications that served to sustain dictators. If South Africa is to remain an exception to the stereotypes of African politics, we must hope for more honesty, rationality, and genuine commitment to democratic process ­all in the service of more tangible economic development across the country.

Too much is at stake for South Africans ­indeed for the rest of the continent ­to blithely dismiss “forces of darkness” in this current election.

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