Don't let Mandela see what's become of his democracy
Being lucky enough to have family in Cape Town, I'll be spared the inflated rates for hotel rooms, car hire and just about every other necessity of a fan travelling to the World Cup in South Africa this June. Price gouging appears to be the order of the day as everyone races to make a quick buck off of the world's largest sporting event. Everyone who can, at least. Fifa has taken such tight control over the marketing rights of just about anything that even uses the word "2010" that some locals complain South Africa has been colonised by soccer's governing body.
Trade unions, for example, are up in arms that in a country where the real unemployment rate is close to 40 per cent, the stuffed-toy version of the tournament's mascot - a ball-playing cartoon cheetah called "Zakumi" - is mass produced in China. But having fallen quickly out of love with Jacob Zuma, the president these unions helped to elect out of frustration at his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, it's a safe bet that they will use their ability to disrupt proceedings as leverage to expand their members' share of the spoils.
You'd think that the new democratic society husbanded into being by Nelson Mandela would be able to appeal to the national interest to induce some discipline and restraint. Even the narrowest reading of the commercial interests of all involved demands it. If the World Cup's purpose for the host country is to showcase South Africa as a long-term tourist destination, then forcing visitors to pay through the nose for basics will hardly encourage that.
An appeal to restraint and discipline would require moral and political leadership of a sort sadly absent in today's South Africa. Mr Mandela's moral authority derived from his epic sacrifices on behalf of all South Africans but his age and infirmity have forced him to retire from the national stage, leaving his organisation - the African National Congress - increasingly under the sway of leaders dedicated primarily to self-aggrandisement.
A message of self-discipline from their current president would be hard for most South Africans to take. Mr Zuma, having survived a corruption trial (the charges dismissed over technicalities) and a charge of rape in which the judge believed his claims about a sexual encounter with a family friend he knew to be HIV-positive, he was elevated to the presidency by a coalition of nationalists and leftists united only around the goal of ousting Mr Mbeki.
Except for a critical reversal of Mr Mbeki's denial-based Aids policy, Mr Zuma has largely maintained the socio-economic orientation of Mr Mbeki - much to the outrage of the trade union members and leftists who helped elect him. Most of what his electorate hears about Mr Zuma are his efforts at promoting his legacy, in the most literal sense. Shortly after marrying a fifth wife, it emerged that Mr Zuma had fathered yet another child (he has more than 20) out of wedlock with the daughter of Irvin Khoza, the head of the local World Cup organising committee. Similar revelations followed, leaving many ANC stalwarts rolling their eyes and not exactly rushing to defend him.
Mr Zuma insists that his shenanigans are an expression of Zulu traditional culture, causing raised eyebrows among Zulu scholars and ANC stalwarts mindful of the fact that the ANC has always eschewed tribalism, characterising its identity as urban and modern. Then there is the politically incorrect conversation about whether traditional Zulu culture, less than two hundred years old and known primarily for its ability to organise an impressive military rather than building the cities, state systems, trade relations and universities of some of the West African cultures, offers much of a model for a 21st century South Africa.
Mr Zuma today presents to the public an image of a leader lacking in conviction, largely absorbed in protecting himself as the feuding forces that propelled him to power escalate their battle for the soul of the ANC. Affable as he is, Mr Zuma sits uncertainly atop an unstable coalition, unable to move decisively in any direction but unlikely to be deposed until the power struggle between those who elected him has been settled. Until then, it is pretty obvious that in the ANC, and in the wider South African community, nobody is going to listen to Jacob Zuma.
While the unions and the communists berate Mr Zuma for economic policies they say favour the rich and fail to generate jobs, the president is also under pressure from his right flank from nationalists who are literally looting the state by exploiting the business opportunities offered by their political power. An entire class of "tender-preneurs" has emerged, politically connected black businessmen with little track record of entrepreneurship, who rake in hundreds of millions of dollars by creating companies that bid for government tenders.
This element sees the communists and unions as mortal enemies, and is urging Mr Zuma to break with them. And also to nationalise the mines - a demand, curiously enough, opposed by the communists - in order to cash in on a whole new raft of government contracts. This faction is epitomised by the ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, 28, who appears in public dripping in bling, owns two very expensive residences, drives top of the range sport cars and has businesses interests worth hundreds of millions of rand. None of this prevents Mr Malema from expressing solidarity with the poorest and most marginalised, hoping to ride to power on their anger.
If the face of the ANC is Mr Zuma and Mr Malema, there's nobody around to provide the sort of overarching leadership to a national project in the way that Mr Mandela and the stalwart ANC generation once did. Most of the ANC's most visible leaders are too concerned with feathering their own nests. And so the World Cup dawns, with stadiums as yet uncompleted, 700,000 match tickets still unsold, and a tourism industry looking to bilk those who do show up. It's short-term thinking, to be sure, unlikely to burnish South Africa's credentials even if the football matches themselves go off splendidly.
No wonder then that Winnie Mandela reports that her former husband's family now shields him from news of the everyday goings on in the government he helped create, lest the dismal spectacle of today's ANC power struggles hasten the great man's demise. Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst who blogs at rootlesscosmopolitian.com
Published: February 28, 2010 04:00 AM