Leading Article: The last thing Africa needs is another Big Man

Jacob Zuma needs to strengthen democracy in South Africa
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Perhaps Nelson Mandela knows something the rest of us do not. Many outside South Africa have reacted with unease to the virtual certainty that Jacob Zuma will be elected the next president of South Africa tomorrow. The unsavoury details that emerged when he was tried for rape, even though he was acquitted, were disquieting. So were there were the charges of corruption and tax evasion against him which the South African authorities dropped just two weeks ago.

Yet despite all that Mr Mandela, the father of the nation, came out this week and made an eve-of-poll endorsement of his successor as African National Congress president.

Enthusiasts for Mr Zuma claim that his only weakness is his determination to be all things to all men. So to ordinary voters, disillusioned with what 15 years of ANC rule since apartheid has brought, he talks of the need for greater government intervention in the economy to combat poverty. To international businessmen, by contrast, he says there will be no change from the economic growth, budget surplus and macro-economic stability that has characterised the South Africa under the highly-respected finance minister Trevor Manuel who was put in office by Mr Zuma's predecessor Thabo Mbeki.

The transition from opposition to government will bring hard choices for Mr Zuma. His commitment to better housing, schools and healthcare for the poorest people seems genuine. But in a shrinking global economy he may find it hard to reconcile that with his commitments not to impede the process of wealth creation in Africa's biggest economy. How long he keeps Mr Manuel in post will provide the world with an indicator of his seriousness of intent on ensuring that South Africa earns enough to pay for the social improvements its people crave.

But there is another area of concern. The constitution drawn up for the country in the immediate aftermath of apartheid was the democratic envy of other Africans. Effective separations of powers were put in place and the ruling party, the ANC, embodied a real commitment to a multi-racial future not driven by the ethnic rivalries which bedevil other parts of Africa.

Mr Mebki's years in power did a lot to undermine that constitutional dispensation. Parliament became a rubber stump. Politics entered into the prosecutorial processes. The intelligence and security services became tools of different political factions. The culture of high levels of internal discussion within the ANC was stifled. Some have accused Mr Zuma of accelerating those trends. He has played up his Zulu identity, leading to increased levels of ethnic division. He has reverted to the style and image of the Big Man which characterised African leaders in the post-colonial era.

In recent days he has continued to send out mixed signals. First he attacked the country's judges, then he pledged to uphold the independence of the judiciary and all the country's democratic institutions. South Africa's polity is not so wobbly as some of his critics might suggest. It still has a strong free press and its civil society remains the strongest in Africa.

There is even a new political party formed by supporters of Mr Mbeki; it has small prospect of success in this week's elections, but its very emergence is a signal of the strength of South Africa's democracy.

The world will now watch to see whether Mr Zuma will strengthen his nation's good governance or dilute it in the cause of personal power.