Even Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Price laureate dubbed as South Africa’s conscience during the apartheid years, could not persuade the delegates at the ANC Congress in Polokwane not to elect Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma as their party’s next president. The eminent Nelson Mandela opted to stay above the fray on this one, citing impartiality but may be also because he saw it as a foregone conclusion. The mistake that was Zuma’s election is the full responsibility of Thabo Mbeki. This is a man who throughout his presidency has remained aloof and insensitive to South African street and village talk. Even at the congress he found it proper to bore the crowd with a more than two hour long speech on policy issues instead of pandering to their populist instincts. This was a vote against Mbeki in the same vein that many reasonable people had hoped that it be a vote against Zuma.
The implication of a Zuma presidency for South Africa is an issue that South Africans will have to deal with themselves. It may even be (hopefully) the era that finally corrects the injustices of the apartheid period. What worries me is how his presidency will pan out in the wider region. Mbeki, like the Ghanaian Nkrumah, was a lousy president at home but a great pan-Africanist. He was a key architect of the African Union and the NEPAD initiative. Mbeki was also an ideologue – of the tempered kind that Africa woefully lacks – who took time to seriously think of solutions to Africa’s problems. Mbeki had the courage to dream of an African Renaissance even as poverty and underdevelopment still plague the continent.
Of course the wishes of the South African people should supersede those of other Africans when they choose their leaders. I am also glad that Zuma’s election happened in a democratic manner. Institutionalization of democracy within the ANC, as I have pointed out before, is important since it is this party that will be electing South Africa’s president for many years to come – barring any major break-up. This said, I think it is important to acknowledge that South Africa, being the regional hegemon, has considerable influence in Africa. Because of this, people in Harare, Dakar or Nairobi have a reason to care and think of how outcomes in South African politics affect them.
Zuma, a man without much formal education, lacks the intellectual abilities that Mbeki has exhibited ever since his heydays as an ANC exile. He has proven to be a populist and to the best of my knowledge has not shown much interest on the region as a whole. If he chooses to be a domestic leader, like he seems he will, his election will indeed end up being a loss to the African people who desperately need visionary continental leadership to correct the evils of poverty, disease, ignorance and bad leadership.