Leading article: Two figures from the past in a struggle for the future

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The contrast between the South Africa President Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, the man likely to be chosen this week to succeed him as the leader of the African National Congress, could not be starker. Mr Mbeki is a quiet, conservative, intellectual economist, ill at ease with large crowds. Mr Zuma, on the other hand, had no formal schooling and became a big figure in the armed struggle against Apartheid. He also has charisma and flamboyance by the sack-full. The two men also hail from different ideological wings of the ANC. Mr Zuma regards universal free education as the main weapon against poverty. He presents himself as a champion of the downtrodden, lamenting a growing gap between the rich and the poor. By contrast, President Mbeki has governed as an economic liberal since he was elected in 1999.

Both men have a power base in the ANC. But Mr Zuma's backing from the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the Women's League of the ANC and the Communist Party seems to have swung the outcome of the imminent leadership vote in his favour. It is small wonder that the prospect of this Chávez-type figure being chosen to succeed Mr Mbeki has spooked international investors. The rand sank to a three-week low against the dollar yesterday.

The situation is more complex than appearances would suggest, of course. Part of Mr Zuma's political strength comes from the fact he is a Zulu, which is why he was the chief deal-maker between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party in 1994. This is also the reason he takes a harder line than Mr Mbeki on the misrule of the Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (a Shona). It also helps that Zimbabwe's opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, is an Ndebele (a branch of the Zulus). Tribalism is evidently alive and kicking in Africa. This week's ANC delegates have noted heavy rains, a traditional Zulu omen for the installation of a new king.

Does Mr Zuma deserve to replace Mr Mbeki? The present incumbent certainly has his faults. Mr Mbeki's government has paid too little attention to the plight of South Africa's poorest since 1999. And Mr Mbeki's conciliatory diplomatic instincts have led him to a shamefully passive stance when dealing with Mr Mugabe. The President's scientific denial and stalling in the face of the terrible threat from Aids has also been a disgrace, although it should be acknowledged the situation of sufferers has improved dramatically in recent years, thanks to the increased availability of anti-retroviral drugs.

Nor is Mr Zuma quite the left-wing firebrand many would like him to be. He pointed out last week that economic decisions in government were made by committee, not by one man. Yet the corruption charges hanging over Mr Zuma make him a deeply compromised figure. His recent performance in the witness box, on trial for rape, also suggest that Mr Zuma's attitudes on Aids are no more progressive than his rival.

The truth is that both Mr Mbeki and Mr Zuma are men of the past. What South Africa needs is someone from a younger generation who can consolidate the achievements of recent years and move the anti-poverty and anti-crime agenda forward with greater speed. It needs someone who understands that the nation needs to take big decisions on issues like energy and climate change. South Africa needs the kind of double-digit growth seen in China and India if it is to strengthen democracy domestically and remain a progressive player for change in the African continent. The party should be looking to men like Cyril Ramaphosa or the ANC chairman Mosiuoa Lekota. But delegates seem determined to look to the past. They are likely to learn the hard way that in the modern world, treading water, is not enough.