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Splits in South Africa's Democracy

Author: Stephanie Hanson
October 6, 2008

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It's been a tough year for South Africa. Severe power shortages in January ground business to a halt (NYT), xenophobic violence in the spring forced thousands of immigrants to flee their homes (AP), and in late September, months of tensions in the ruling party spilled into the open with the resignation of President Thabo Mbeki. While most analysts believe the ruling African National Congress (ANC) will remain the country's strongest political force, there is widespread concern that internal party battles could prevent the government from addressing deepening political and economic problems.

The ANC division dates back to December 2007, when Jacob Zuma was elected leader of the party, sidelining then-leader Mbeki. Though Mbeki was slated to hold the presidency until elections in mid-2009, experts say the divisions with Zuma seriously weakened Mbeki's ability to govern. Following Mbeki's ouster, Kgalema Motlanthe, a party centrist, was installed as interim president, but party infighting continues. "A struggle for the soul of the ANC is underway," argues academic James Hamill in an article for Britain's Chatham House think tank. As a result, he writes, the ANC is "increasingly blind to the bigger picture at home and abroad."

Opinion is divided on the likelihood of a breakaway party forming. The ANC denies talk of a split (Reuters) into rival factions, but CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Princeton N. Lyman says in a CFR.org podcast the rift within the party is "very serious" and that Zuma's faction continues to "purge" Mbeki loyalists from the government. Some experts say a new political party could make South Africa more democratic. "Few would disagree that such a split would inject an energizing dynamic to our country's body politic and to our democracy in general," writes Prince Mashele of the Institute for Security Studies, a South Africa-based think tank.

South Africa's uncertain political landscape has international investors and policymakers anxiously looking for signs of what tack the country will take in 2009. Some experts believe Mbeki's resignation is an opportunity. "If the new administration in Pretoria can unshackle itself from the ANC's inhibitive liberation ethos, Mbeki's departure from office could revitalize South Africa's standing in world affairs," write Greg Mills and Terence McNamee in an International Herald Tribune op-ed. The opposition party in South Africa agrees. South Africa's "current uncertainty could, over time, lead to far less predictable and far more democratic political outcomes ," says Tony Leon, the Democratic Alliance's spokesman for foreign affairs.

Other analysts are more cautious. They say Zuma is a problematic figure: His most ardent supporters are from the radical fringes of the party; corruption charges continue to dog him; and he has little formal education. "Mr Zuma finds it easier to tell people what they want to hear than to articulate a vision," writes the Economist. Zuma has been courting international investors (Newsweek Int'l), as well as South Africa's white community.

With a gross domestic product (GDP) of roughly $468 billion last year, South Africa is the most prosperous country on the continent and has long attracted immigrants from other African countries looking for economic opportunities. But the economic challenges facing the country are formidable. According to a report released by the government in October 2008, 48 percent of the population was living below the poverty line in 2005. The country's new president will have to tackle persistent unemployment, particularly among youth. The Center for Development and Enterprise in Johannesburg says 65 percent of people between fifteen and twenty-four were unemployed in 2005.

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