In an African mirror, reflections of how we got to where we are

By Tom Baxter

(First of two columns on 21st Century South Africa)

When my colleagues Lyle Harris, W.A. Bridges and I were preparing to go to South Africa to cover the 1994 election, we were warned not to be lured into making easy parallels between two countries that really were quite different and far apart.

This was good advice, to a point. The parallels between the United States and South Africa aren’t easy at all. They’re confounding and confusing and might better not be thought of as parallels at all, but rather a unique kind of perpendicularity, a product in part of our intertwined histories.

Suppose, for instance, that Donald Trump was president, and George Washington died four years ago. Jacob Zuma might reply indignantly that he’s more like Vladimir Putin than President Trump, but the comparison with Washington holds up pretty well for Nelson Mandela, a leader whose memory still exerts a powerful unifying force in what is still a deeply divided nation.

Seven months after Mandela and the African National Congress swept to power in South Africa’s first multi-racial election in 1994, Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took control of the U.S. Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Since their respective revolutions, both the ANC and the Republican Party have strengthened their hold on the legislative process and established themselves, at the grassroots and national level, as the majority party. The two parties may have very different philosophies, but they have had similar trajectories.

Both parties find themselves today facing an electorate increasingly impatient for tangible results, with the sort of leader they never expected in the heady days of their first success.

Last month, Zuma survived his fourth no-confidence vote in the South African Parliament. It was the first to be conducted by secret ballot and, not surprisingly, the embattled president’s closest call yet in his eight years in the nation’s highest office. He has also weathered a variety of corruption charges, as well as a charge of rape. He claimed it was consensual.

For the shadowy Russian oligarchs of the Trump story, you can substitute the Guptas, a family centered around three Indian brothers who moved to South Africa in 1993 on the advice of their father, who thought it to be the “new America.” They built a business empire with holdings ranging from mining to high tech and formed such a deep connection with Zuma they have been accused of handing out cabinet positions in his government. The two families are so close (two of Zuma’s children have served on Gupta-controlled boards) that South Africans speak of the Zuptas.

“We are rising against those who have surrendered the people’s power into a family of foreigners,” Julius Malema, the former ANC youth leader who leads the breakaway Economic Freedom Fighters party, thundered during the debate preceding last month’s no-confidence vote. Malema has been viewed as a dangerous radical by more mainstream politicians, who now find themselves in grudging alliance with him in the fight to topple Zuma — an even broader jump than the Democrats’ embrace of the Republican Senate hawks.

An advisor during the framing of the new constitution which South Africa adopted in 1997 noted recently that its framers overlooked two flaws. First, they never contemplated the rise of a leader as corrupt as the current one. Secondly, while the framers viewed the election system as only a first step, they were naive in assuming that once the parties had control of the way legislative power was apportioned, they would ever give it up.

Again, two parties, similar trajectories. What happens to Zuma may be determined by the results of the ANC’s elective conference this December. There has been a wave of killings of local ANC officials which appear to be linked to the battle over party control.

There’s no question that in the past 23 years, South Africa has accomplished remarkable things, although this might not be as clear if you were seeing it for the first time. The real emblems of progress aren’t the impressive stadiums and highways the country erected to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup, but the vast swaths of modest houses in the old township areas. The number of South Africans who have access to a dry roof, clean water and electricity has doubled since 1994.

Most of this progress can be credited to Mandela and his successor, Thabo Mbeki, however. Under Zuma the economy has soured, and the percentage of Born Frees — those born after 1994 — has climbed to more than 40 percent of South Africa’s population. They are less likely to care that Zuma served time on Robben Island with Mandela, and more likely to demand a greater share of their nation’s wealth.

The current preoccupation with monuments didn’t start in the United States. It began with the demonstrations which led to the removal of a statue of the British colonialist Cecil Rhodes at Cape Town University, and a wave of similar actions which followed around South Africa. These demonstrations will likely be looked back upon as a signal of the younger generation’s increasing restiveness.

Yet the crowds of freshly scrubbed, uniformed school children who file through the modest home where Mandela lived in Soweto give dramatic testimony to how far this country has come. You hope Mandela’s wisdom and resolve can be transmitted to them.

On my first visit to South Africa I was given pretty wide brief to talk with South Africans about the changes they were going through. My second visit came about through one of Atlanta’s little-known gems, the Interfaith Community Initiatives’ World Pilgrims program, which brings Christians, Jews and Muslims (along with the occasional Buddhist and agnostic) together to travel the world. One good way to make contact with the people of this country, I found, is to attend their churches, synagogues and mosques.

More on those people, and what they think of us, next week.

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Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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