- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009



By Alec Russell

Public Affairs, $26.95, 336 pages

Fifteen years after its first nonracial democratic election, South Africa faces its “second struggle,” in the words of Alec Russell. The former Johannesburg bureau chief of the Financial Times, Mr. Russell is the author of “Bring Me My Machine Gun: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa From Mandela to Zuma,” a wide-ranging new survey of South Africa since the end of apartheid, the overthrow of that system being the first “struggle” to which the country's current predicament is the successor.

Faced with one of the world's highest crime rates, 30 percent unemployment and a ruling party that often conflates its own interests with those of the state, South Africa is fast approaching the point, Mr. Russell argues, where it will have to choose between the disastrous path followed by most other post-colonial African governments or forge a more positive and productive way forward.

Mr. Russell doesn't underestimate the progress South Africa has made since 1994, when Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) was catapulted from armed liberation movement to governing party. Though many observers had feared a race war, Mr. Mandela, with his unparalleled charisma and genuine commitment to reconciliation, guided the new nation gracefully out of its brutal past.

While race relations are far from perfect (Mr. Russell observes that the country's continued vast economic disparities between blacks and whites have resulted in the “privatization of apartheid” as whites can afford to live their lives apart from the black majority), they are vastly better than what they were 20 years ago.

In contrast to the gracious Mr. Mandela is his successor Thabo Mbeki, who ruled the country for nearly a decade until he was forced to step down by his own party last year. Though Mr. Mbeki pursued free-market policies - much to the consternation of the ANC's left-wing base - his positions on HIV and AIDS (he questioned the link between the two), crime (he accused those who complained about it of being racist) and Zimbabwe (he propped up Robert Mugabe, who to this day remains in power) will ultimately tarnish his legacy.

Mr. Russell paints a harsh picture of Mr. Mbeki, a man who is so divorced from reality that he would send handwritten, paranoid memos challenging the accepted science that HIV causes AIDS to world leaders such as former President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. His behavior toward his colleagues was no less bizarre: Mr. Mandela complained to friends that he had to wait six months just to see his former deputy.

Because the ANC played such an outsized role in the worldwide campaign against apartheid (at least in the imaginations of most South Africans) and so dominates the country's politics (it controls 70 percent of Parliament and can essentially govern by fiat) any discussion of South Africa's future ultimately revolves around the party. “The ANC remains the country's engine room,” Mr. Russell writes. “It is the ANC that will continue to form policy. … If South Africa is to correct the corrosive drift of the first fifteen years of democracy, it is the ANC that has to change.”

Bestriding this story - and overshadowing the country's future - is the irrepressible figure of Jacob Zuma, the man whose election as president on April 22 is all but certain and whose trademark ditty supplies the title for Mr. Russell's book. “Bring Me My Machine Gun,” or “Umshini Wami” in Zulu, is an apartheid-era struggle song popularized by Mr. Zuma at the massive outdoor rallies surrounding his 2006 rape trial.

Though acquitted, Mr. Zuma remains implicated in a multimillion-dollar corruption scandal involving a government arms contract. Charges against him were tossed out two weeks ago not because of a lack of evidence but rather due to purported prosecutorial misconduct.

Mr. Zuma is recognizable to observers of African politics as a populist demagogue, in stark contrast to Mr. Mbeki, a reserved, scholarly type who loathed campaigning and never made an effort to gain the affection of South Africa's masses. Into that void stepped the self-professed “100 Percent Zulu Boy,” who, with his singing, dancing and popular appeals - all of which I witnessed in 2006 at one of the various iterations of Mr. Zuma's years-long legal battle - boasts a charisma that puts even the most charming American politicians to shame.

“Mbeki agonized over what it meant to be an authentic African leader. Zuma had to do no such thing: He was one,” Mr. Russell writes. And so the fate of the country will be determined, in large part, by what sort of leader Mr. Zuma will be.

Given its strong industrial base, rapid growth and highly urbanized environment, South Africa is not likely to go the route of neighboring Zimbabwe, where the contentious issue of land reform ultimately plunged the country into economic and political disaster. It's doubtful Mr. Zuma will be a South African Robert Mugabe, as some of South Africa's more hysterical white conservative voices have warned. But it's equally unlikely that Mr. Zuma will surprise the world and be South Africa's Ronald Reagan, as Mr. Russell speculates.

More likely, Mr. Zuma will oversee the gradual centralization of state power and continue Mr. Mbeki's policy of merging the ANC with the organs of state while perhaps taming some of Mr. Mbeki's more free-market policies. South Africa has withstood far worse leaders than Mr. Zuma, and its people have proved themselves nothing if not resilient in the face of difficult challenges.


James Kirchick is an assistant editor of the New Republic. He has reported extensively from South Africa and Zimbabwe.

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