April 20, 2009

South Africa's Jay-Z

For my second trip to South Africa it’s been less about the new & fascinating aspects of an adventure but more about the nuance of day-to-day life as an expat. I now know my way around (as much as someone with no sense of direction can =)); I’ve figured out that a robot is a traffic light; and I’ve somewhat deciphered the nuances between just now, right now, and now now. There has, however, been one big difference I’ve come back to – it’s election time and literally every street pole, radio ad and TV spot is about the election on Wednesday April 22nd.

The primary party in SA is the African National Congress (ANC). At the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela called for all of the anti-apartheid parties to come together under the ANC umbrella in the name of unity. That lasted for about a decade, but quickly (and perhaps rightly) divisions began to form from within. It all came to a head in 2008 when then President Thabo Mbeki was asked to step down under allegations that he politically influenced fraud charges brought against party head (and likely soon to be president) Jacob Zuma AKA South Africa’s Jay-Z.

Although the truth is still quite murky, my guess is that all their hands are dirty. Mbeki probably did influence the fraud charge, but Zuma also probably committed the fraud. Lucky for Zuma, now that his faction of the ANC is in control, the charges against him seem to have been dropped due to technical and “process” issues.

The good news is that former members of the ANC have left to create an opposition party: the Congress of the People, or COPE. Whether or not COPE will do a good job or not, I'm not entirely sure. But what feels more important to me is that there is at least some choice for the people. Otherwise one-party rule continues under the guise of “a history of liberation” without necessarily the governing ability behind it.

The bad news, and clearly I’m biased, is that the ANC will probably still win. They have been documented to be giving people in the poorest areas “food for votes,” claiming that only the ruling party can continue to bring them food. They’re also telling people in government-provided housing that it is the ANC that brought them their homes. And although many of these people are still waiting for proper water & electricity in these “homes,” food and shelter are pretty strong heartstrings and many are likely to continue to vote for the ANC.

Why is this bad news? Well primarily because of Jacob Zuma himself. A self-proclaimed polygamist (as part of Zulu culture), no one is exactly sure the exact number of his wives, but he does have twenty-two children by six women. He has also previously been accused (and acquitted) of raping an HIV positive woman. When accused, he claimed that the woman was wearing a mini-skirt and thus as a proper Zulu man he was obliged to fulfill what she was asking for. Knowing that she was HIV positive, he had unprotected sex with her and claimed he took a shower afterwards and thus should be fine. As you can imagine, gender equity under his rule is a primary concern of mine.

The flip side of Jay-Z is that he is an incredibly charming and charismatic leader that people can relate to. Sound familiar? I constantly find myself telling people that if we could get through eight years of George Bush, surely South Africa can get through a few years of Zuma... But the fear here is that Jay-Z will try to make the South African constitution more authoritarian and specifically lean more towards Zulus – in a nation made up of a minimum of 11 other tribes. Whites, specifically, seem to fear that Zuma will be the next Mugabe, bringing down a great nation. Personally, I don’t actually think that’s going to happen. Seeing as how Zuma allowed the Chinese government (who funds the ANC) to push his governmnet into not providing a visa to the Dalai Lama (yes, they said no to the Dalai Lama!), I think his love of money, and in turn need for foreign direct investment, will keep him in check. In the end, I suppose only time will tell… To be cheeky - soon South Africa’s Jay-Z is going to have 99 problems, but I’m guessing his wives won’t be one.

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