South Africa’s Democratic Dilemma

South Africa’s Democratic Dilemma

CFR’s Princeton Lyman says deep economic challenges confront South Africa’s presumed next president, Jacob Zuma, but there are also opportunities for improved U.S. ties.

April 22, 2009 3:08 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Jacob Zuma, the candidate of South Africa’s dominant post-apartheid party, the African National Congress (ANC), is poised to win the presidency. CFR’s Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. ambassador to South Africa, says Zuma will face the immediate challenge of reducing the country’s severe poverty and unemployment (Bloomberg) during a time of economic crisis. Lyman also cites concerns about the circumstances surrounding Zuma’s candidacy and the lack of viable political opposition in South Africa. At the same time, he notes the opportunity for improved policies on combating HIV/AIDS, coaxing reforms in neighboring Zimbabwe, and cooperating on multiple issues with the United States.

A South African court dropped the corruption case against Jacob Zuma earlier this month, paving the way for him to win the presidency. Some analysts have expressed concern about the direction he might take South Africa. What are your expectations of a Zuma presidency?

More From Our Experts

It boils down to really two or three things. One is what he will try to do to satisfy his constituency, which comes from the left and from the township population. When the economy is contracting, and the economic options aren’t so great, that’s going to be a big challenge. The second concern is the attitude toward checks and balances in the government, comments that he and his supporters have made about the judiciary, and to some extent, the press, worry people in terms of no checks and balances and related to that, the dismissal of the indictment against him, what that means for corruption and the rule of law. On the positive side, he’s street-smart and he’s indicated that he’s not going to make radical changes in the economic policies of the country. And the fact that he doesn’t have some of the hang-ups [former President Thabo] Mbeki has may allow him to be more inclusive and to be better on some issues like Zimbabwe and even HIV/AIDS.

More on:

Elections and Voting

South Africa

The disappointment with COPE [the new political party] is that if they come out as badly as predicted, there still is no real viable opposition in the parliament. That means the oversight that you want from the parliament, which hasn’t been there in the last administration, isn’t going to be there in the next one either, and that’s worrisome.

How would you assess the health of South Africa’s democracy? What kind of debate do you think we’ll see once this new government takes office?

"The campaign was free; the voting went off very well. That was a good sign. The press is still free. Hopefully the judiciary will stay strong. So the state of the democracy is ok now--not great, ok."

Unfortunately, the debate won’t have power. You’ll still have the Democratic Alliance [opposition party] and you’ll have COPE in the parliament, but their ability to influence government policy will be limited. On the positive side, the election was carried out very well. I worried a lot about violence during the election because some of Zuma’s people have been saying extreme things. But in fact, the election went off very well. The campaign was free; the voting went off very well. That was a good sign. The press is still free. Hopefully the judiciary will stay strong. So the state of the democracy is ok now, not great, ok. And the real question will be the test in the coming years.

More From Our Experts

What are the most pressing challenges that the government needs to address? Is it working on strengthening state institutions like the judiciary? Is it dealing with land rights issues? Is it public health issues like HIV?

The top priority in the longer term is improving the competitiveness of the South African economy. Right now, you have high costs and low productivity largely due to a very poor education system. That’s going to keep them from cracking the unemployment problem and the poverty problem. That’s got to be the long-term priority. It’s not something you can do overnight, but it’s got to be the number one priority. And that’s going to take some give by the labor unions, it’s going to take some give by the teachers’ union. There have got to be some very solid investments in the education system.

The second priority, it seems to me, is to strengthen the parliament and the parliament’s oversight rights as a check on the executive branch. It’s going to be hard to do with the big ANC majority, but maybe with some encouragement from the opposition, there can be more of that. Those two seem to be very important and, of course, [also that] the judiciary is not interfered with anymore.

More on:

Elections and Voting

South Africa

The United States has had a fairly cool relationship with South Africa in recent years. There have been differences on the UN Security Council on issues like sanctions against autocratic regimes. What are the possibilities for the United States and South Africa to build some kind of partnership which has benefits both for South Africa and regionally?

There is an opportunity and a need for the United States to start a better relationship with South Africa. Changes in the administration in both countries offer that opportunity. There’s not a lot we can do on their domestic economic issues. We don’t have a big aid program. We’re big trading partners, but a lot of these issues internally have to be done by the South Africans. But there are a lot of issues on which we should now be able to cooperate better. One is Zimbabwe--how do we shore up this unity government and give [Morgan] Tsvangirai [the Zimbabwean prime minister] some real power--that’s an area in which we could probably collaborate more. [Another area is] the whole trade issue, the Doha round, [and] where Africa is going on international trade. South Africa’s been the leader, and they’ve led Africa on the opposite side of the U.S. position. More can be done on patching that up. Fortunately, South Africa is off the UN Security Council, so we won’t have those issues to fight about. But there are other areas of international cooperation, particularly peaceful uses of nuclear power and better help from South Africa on Iran.

"[T]he fact that [Jacob Zuma] doesn’t have some of the hang-ups [former President Thabo] Mbeki has may allow him to be more inclusive and to be better on some issues like Zimbabwe and even HIV/AIDS."

Let’s zero in on Zimbabwe. There’s been some discussion that under Jacob Zuma, South Africa could take a more proactive stance with Zimbabwe. Do you believe that to be the case, and if so, what would that look like specifically?

I think so, but there won’t be a radical change. South Africa isn’t going to try and really muscle [Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe or the ZANU-PF people [Mugabe’s political party], but I do expect from Zuma more encouragement, better relationships with Tsvangirai and the MDC [Movement for Democratic Change, the opposition party], and therefore a more even-handed approach with regard to how you help this unity government, and you don’t sell out Tsvangirai to the ZANU people. So I think the opportunities for cooperation on Zimbabwe are better now, although the situation in Zimbabwe is still quite fragile.

What about some of the other pressing security issues on the continent--the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan. Do you see a role for South Africa there?

One of the unknowns of the Jacob Zuma administration is how active he will be in the African scene beyond southern Africa. Mbeki was very active in Africa, playing a role in Congo, sending peacekeeping troop to a number of places. I don’t know how active Zuma will be. He’s got domestic economic problems, lots of political problems at home. Whether he will play the same proactive role elsewhere on the continent is, in my view, questionable. If he does, it’s more likely to be in DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] and the Great Lakes than Sudan and elsewhere. I don’t expect him to play the same role in the Africa Union as Mbeki did. That’s unfortunate, but I have this feeling that that’s going to be the case.


Top Stories on CFR


Ian Johnson, the Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how Chinese filmmakers, journalists, and artists are challenging the Chinese Communist Party’s version of history. 

Climate Change

For decades, U.S. homeowners have counted on property insurance to protect them from catastrophic loss if their homes are destroyed—and the U.S. economy has rested on the functionality of that model. But as this summer’s extreme weather broke records, private companies reduced their coverage. As climate disasters become more frequent, can home insurance hold up?


If Western allies fail to send Ukraine the weapons it needs, the odds increase of the war dragging on indefinitely, at a terrible cost to both Ukraine and Russia and a growing risk to the wider world.