Saturday, May 24, 2008

Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma

Right now a large number of commentators are being hostile to Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa for not doing enough to solve various problems. He is perceived as not having done enough to prevent the mess in Zimbabwe. His term hasn't reduced crime that much, and land is still mostly (some 85%) owned by whites in a country where nonwhites are one in eight of the population.

I truly do understand his lack of 'movement' on these issues. South Africa has a history of being over-involved in the affairs of its neighbors; it controlled Namibia until about 1990. Meanwhile, making a serious effort to fix wealth disparities might either trigger a backlash from rich whites or from foreign investors. Better to let the economy alone, growing slowly, than to try to jolt it and maybe fail miserably.

Pundits are right to excoriate Mbeki for his stance on HIV - that it doesn't cause AIDS - and for appointing likeminded people to the health boards. Except that Mbeki's government doesn't officially make Mbeki's beliefs into policy; the emphasis has been on natural cures that don't seem to do much, but it has not cut off or banned or otherwise majorly interfered with those who want to distribute anti-retrovirals. Compare this to other countries that won't iodize salt to cure goiters because it's supposedly a sterilizer placed there by whites. Mbeki's government may think wrong, but on this issue they mostly act right.

Mbeki has one year left. When he leaves, current ANC president Jacob Zuma will most likely take over. Hearing about his rape trial and accusations about his financial dealings I grew to dislike, then heavily dislike, then hate Zuma. But strangely enough, nearly everything I've heard from Zuma in the last few months I liked. I liked it a lot.

He got tough when talking about Zimbabwe - obviously ready to take a more active role in resolving the mess. When China attempted to ship weapons to Zimbabwe through South Africa, Mbeki was silent. Zuma was fiery and angry, denouncing China in one of the most clear-cut cases of post-election violence in history. And I'll be damned, but Zuma has won me back. I'm now neutral with regard to him and his upcoming presidency.

Strange enough that a man I hoped would be crushed by scandals is now steadily winning back my respect. Both Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki have combined a small, less active government with restrained personalities. Zuma doesn't strike me as an abuser of power, but he would be more energetic. If South Africa wants to debut on the world stage in a new freshman class of countries that include Brazil, Argentina, South Korea and more, Zuma might be the man for the job.


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