by Keith Somerville
Keith Somerville lectures in journalism at Brunel University and was a news editor and radio documentary maker for the BBC World Service. He has written widely on southern African politics and from 1985 to 1991 was on the editorial board of Anti-Apartheid News. In April 1994 he led the World Service team covering South Africa’s first truly democratic elections.
The British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said that a week is a long time in politics, so 15 years since the election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s seems a lifetime. When the victorious ANC leader Jacob Zuma is sworn in as president he will be the third ANC leader, the third black politician and the first Zulu to hold that position. For many South Africans this is another chance to celebrate what was achieved in 1994, but there is a cloud of great uncertainty marring the blue skies of a new presidency.
Zuma does not come to power, as Barack Obama or indeed Nelson Mandela did in 1994, as a mould-breaking leader in whom the hopes of millions are invested. True, many ordinary, poor South Africans see him as their voice – the populist voice of poor South Africa who can speak for those who feel they have not gained what they should have from 15 years of ANC government and for those who felt the dour and distant Thabo Mbeki was more in tune with corporate South Africa than the masses who form the bedrock of ANC support. But at least an equal number of South Africans are afraid – it did not stop them voting for the ANC. But then really what was the choice for them – the Democratic Alliance (still essentially the genteel voice of liberal white South Africa, decent but hardly in tune with the poor) or the Congress of the People (the new black-led party seen as a pro-Mbeki splinter group and so tarred with the brush of his less than universally acclaimed two terms as president) or one of the myriad of smaller parties with no national following.
So Jacob Zuma comes to the presidency with question marks hanging over him – not least because of the corruption scandal which was never resolved through a court of law and the rape accusations, which were resolved with his acquittal but which led to the admission by the new president that he had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive friend of the family. So alongside the political doubts about his leadership there are also doubts about his suitability – doubts raised openly by the great political and ethical barometer of South Africa, Desmond Tutu, and shared by many.
This new chapter in South African politics is one that is going to be as hard as it is fascinating for journalists to cover. Do you take the view that as an elected president he starts with a clean slate, do you continue to write about the corruption and rape issues, do you see him as a man of the people (warts and all) who can restore a human face to the South African government after the seeming cold detachment of Mbeki or do you see him, the British Economist suggested recently as Africa’s new “big man”?
It’s difficult, and particularly so for those of us who have covered South Africa for years and during the apartheid era had to carefully balance our commitment to the anti-apartheid cause personally with our public pronouncements as journalists with specialist expertise and knowledge. As I stood in Soweto in the cool but exciting dawn of 27th April 1994 interviewing black South Africans as they queued for hours to cast their votes at a polling station in the shadow of the grave of Hector Peterson, the 12 year old boy who was the first schoolboy to be killed on 16th June 1976 during the Soweto uprising, I shared their exhilaration. When they said it was like a religious experience, I could feel it too. It was the rebirth of a nation, a new beginning.
But now, how do I view it and how do we frame it for our audiences. It is a beginning of some kind. Is it the beginning of a populist era when politicians more in tune with poor, black South Africans will at least try to end the crisis of expectations of the poor? Is it the beginning of a cosmetic change but not a change in substance in South African political life? Or is it the beginning of the slide – as the pessimists who view Africa as a basket case continent would put it – into autocracy, corruption and chaos.
Nobody knows, because nobody but Jacob Zuma and perhaps his closest political confidantes really know his mind. So what have we got to go on – other than of course the scandals. Well, Zuma has been more outspoken in his criticism of the regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe than Mbeki was. It was hoped that Mbeki could influence Mugabe or failing that put pressure on him to change. He didn’t. Zuma was critical, openly, of that stance. But Western journalists watching this have been sceptical – was this a reflection of his real views, a stick with which to beat Mbeki or a means of cultivating a better international image when his was at rock bottom? Probably both of the latter, but one hopes it also reflected a genuine distaste for the policies of Mugabe and their disastrous consequences for Zimbabwe.
So we should watch and wait. As always, observation, questioning and informed interpretation should serve the journalist in reporting the new situation. If this approach then corroborates the evidence of a flawed, corrupt and reckless man, then so be it. If it shows a different face, then report it without fear or favour. Don’t be bound by prejudices about the man suggested by past behaviour, after all it was the attempt to influence the corruption investigation against Zuma that led to Mbeki’s downfall, so with how big a measure of salt do we take the corruption allegations?
I won’t be going to South Africa until July, then I’ll be in the Western Cape (now under the rule of a Democratic Alliance provincial government) and the Eastern Cape (the home region of both Mandela and Mbeki but not Zuma), so I may get quite a critical picture. We shall see.
I started with a quote from a British Prime Minister and I’ll finish with one. I hope the portents for Zuma from the scandals prove wrong and he revitalises a South African political body that is in danger of becoming divorced from reality and moribund. I hope that, to quote Churchill from 1942, that we are not seeing the beginning of the end of a vibrant democracy in South Africa, but perhaps the end of the beginning as far as democracy is concerned in South Africa.