The Magazine

Against All Odds

A flourishing democracy takes root in South Africa.

Mar 22, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 27 • By MAX BOOT
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Since 1994, South Africa's crime rate has spiked to among the highest in the world. In the last few years, it has at least stopped rising and stabilized, though at very high levels; a few categories, like murder, have seen small reductions. Attacks on whites receive a disproportionate share of media attention, but most crime is black on black. Whites have taken refuge behind walled compounds plastered with security company stickers promising "armed response." The government, which had initially focused on revamping the security services, is now fighting crime by increasing police funding and manpower.

The AIDS crisis has also been a story of disaster followed by a conscientious if belated response. South Africa has more people with HIV than any other country: some 5 million of its 45 million people, of whom about 500,000 have full-blown AIDS. Mbeki, who has governed since 1999, was dismayingly slow to address this epidemic. Even as hundreds of thousands died, he publicly mused about whether HIV really caused AIDS and whether anti-retroviral (ARV) medications were really effective. As a consequence, only about 30,000 South Africans are now getting ARVs, almost all of them from private health plans.

Finally, late last year, under pressure of public protests endorsed by Nelson Mandela, Mbeki unveiled a comprehensive AIDS prevention and treatment program that includes handing out free ARVs. But even now the government is showing little urgency. Mbeki made only one passing mention of AIDS in his State of the Nation address in early February, and his health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, continues to suggest that beetroot, ginger, and other folk remedies are as important as cutting-edge drugs.

The government's dilatory response to this public-health disaster underlines some of the weaknesses of South African democracy. The ANC controls 66 percent of parliamentary seats and seven of nine provinces (the last two it rules in coalition with other parties). Its members of Parliament have little independence. They are all selected by the party central office and run in nationwide elections; they are not elected by local constituencies, as in Britain, where backbenchers can challenge and even overthrow their leaders. In South Africa, the president's displeasure can end the career of an ANC MP, and so the MPs are afraid of crossing him, even when, as during the AIDS crisis, he has displayed terrible judgment.

There is no chance of the ANC losing the next election or the one after that. For the foreseeable future South Africa seems destined to be a one-party democracy like India prior to the 1990s or Japan today. This is far from ideal, but freedom can be maintained by vibrant civil institutions, which, fortunately, exist in abundance in South Africa.

A number of opposition parties, led by the Democratic Assembly, which appeals mainly to whites, sit in Parliament and fiercely criticize the ANC. So do many newspapers. There are also plenty of nongovernmental organizations; one of the most effective is the Treatment Action Campaign which led the fight against AIDS. And then there is the independent judiciary. The Constitutional Court has ruled against the government in many cases, including one in which it required the use of ARVs to treat pregnant women with HIV. A lower court ruled against black squatters who had illegally occupied white-owned farmland, Zimbabwe-style; they were forced to vacate.

Opposition politicians may gripe that the government is highhanded and arrogant; some even say they have had their phones tapped by the intelligence service. But there is no sign of the kind of repression evident in other struggling democracies such as Russia. Public debate is free-wheeling and often vitriolic. No one from President Mbeki on down is spared criticism. And opponents of the government have no fear of winding up in jail or the morgue.

The most inspiring thing about South Africa is that there seems to be so little rancor. From Yugoslavia to Rwanda, ethnic groups have exacted a brutal revenge on those who once victimized them--but not in South Africa. In the township of Imizamo Yethu, south of Cape Town, we met a community leader named Kenny Thokwe, who, as an ANC activist, was in and out of jail during the 1980s. One of his closest friends was shot to death by an apartheid policeman, he says, yet when he visits his hometown, he shares a beer with the very same man, his former oppressor, his friend's killer. "We learn to forget yesterday," Thokwe says. "We forgive them. Our enemies are our friends now."

This spirit has helped make South Africa an example to many of its neighbors. President Mbeki has emerged as the leader of the new African Union, which he organized to replace the ineffectual Organization of African States. (He beat out Muammar Qaddafi for the AU presidency.) He has also launched NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa's Development) to help other states establish freedom and prosperity. Many South African firms are doing business across the continent, and South African soldiers have been dispatched as peacekeepers to Burundi and Congo. During a private meeting with our group, the nattily dressed president said that a number of other African leaders, from Congo to Nigeria, have been calling him for advice.

Sadly, Mbeki has not used his influence to counter the brutal policies of his neighbor, Robert Mugabe. Even as repression and famine sweep over Zimbabwe, Mbeki refuses to condemn Mugabe's assaults on private property, the judiciary, and the free press. Mbeki has actually described Zimbabwe's rigged 2002 elections as "free and fair." He argues that his soft approach, seeking negotiations to ease Mugabe out of office, will be more effective than the confrontational style of Britain and the United States. But it is also the case that Mugabe is popular with ANC militants who like the way he's socked it to whites. And Mbeki has to stay on the good side of those ANC militants. But if he fails to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis in Zimbabwe, Mbeki will pay a heavy price--not only in chaos spilling across his northern border, but also in lost credibility as the leading statesman of Africa.

It is very much in America's interest for Mbeki--who is said to have a good relationship with George W. Bush--to emerge stronger than ever. Africa's problems have taken on added urgency since 9/11, as outsiders realize its most disordered states are breeding grounds for international terrorism. And yet there is little willingness in the United States to commit the money and manpower to straighten out Liberia, Sierra Leone, Congo, and Somalia. Our best bet is to encourage the emergence of a few regional hegemons to spread liberal values. Based on its track record so far, South Africa appears to be the best candidate for the job.

Max Boot is Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Times.