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Despite its potential, South Africa is going rogue right before our eyes

By Makau Mutua | July 12th 2015

I can’t help but note that South Africa, the continent's most advanced country, is being run by someone unsuitable to be its leader.

There’s no other way of explaining the mess that President Jacob Zuma has made of things. And that’s putting it politely. For long a pariah apartheid state, South Africa now risks sinking in the sewer again — only this time under an ANC government.

Known as the “coconut,” a euphemism for being “black” on the outside and “white” on the inside, South Africa is truly going rogue. In tennis, they would call Mr Zuma’s catastrophic miscalculations “unforced errors.” But this isn’t tennis. Serious matters of state are at stake. The “giant of Africa” is turning into a moral dwarf. Mr Zuma’s head should hang in shame. In April 1994, I was in South Africa as part of an American delegation to witness the first all-race democratic elections in that tortured country. I remember the plane ride from New York’s JFK International Airport to Johannesburg. The big bird was jam-packed with American election observers, mostly African-American, many from small towns.

These Americans — children and actors of the American civil rights movement — knew apartheid. It was Jim Crow and segregation in the American South. And so they had an instinctive empathy for black South Africans. I remember we didn’t sit down throughout the flight — not even when the captain would order us to “take your seats and secure your seat belts.” We were flying into history.

One poignant scene stood out for me as I observed the elections in the former Bantustan of Bophuthatswana. We were milling around when a commotion caught our attention. A black woman of an advanced age was brought in a wheelbarrow into the voting booth. She couldn’t read, or write. But she wanted to confirm which sign and picture was ANC and Nelson Mandela’s.

The agents complied. She then — with great dignity — cast her vote. She faced us and uttered these memorable words — “I can die now.” That’s right — her life’s mission was complete. She had voted for the first time in her life, and voted her conscience. There was not a dry eye around me. A new South Africa was born.

Fast forward to 2007 when Mr Zuma, a one-time former Deputy President, engineered President Thabo Mbeki’s downfall. He first beat Mr Mbeki as ANC president and then manoeuvered with others to have him removed as the country’s head of state. It was a coup through the party. But Mr Zuma, a stalwart of the anti-apartheid struggle, has been dogged by scandal. He’s faced serious corruption charges. In a sordid 2005 trial on rape charges with a woman who was HIV positive, Mr Zuma stunned the thinking world when he argued that the sex was consensual, but that he had not used a condom. He instead said he had a taken a shower afterwards to “cut the risk of contracting HIV.”

It, therefore, came as a shock when Mr Zuma was elected president in 2009 and then re-elected. His regime has been rocked by high level corruption and ideological incoherence within the once mighty ANC. But several other events have brought South Africa under Mr Zuma into international ridicule and disrepute.

The xenophobic attacks against black African immigrants in South Africa stood out for their lethality and inhumanity. Those targeted were mostly Mozambicans, Zimbabweans, and Nigerians — three countries that sacrificed treasure and blood to free black South Africans from the grip of apartheid. I remember when I was in exile in Tanzania in the 1980s how hospitable Tanzanians were to South African freedom fighters. How quickly we forget.

But the last straw that broke the camel’s back was South Africa’s handling of what I shall simply call the Bashir Affair. It’s non sequitur that Mr Bashir, the unabashed dictator of Khartoum, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. That wasn’t a misprint — genocide.

The man has been credibly accused of butchering hundreds of thousands of black Africans in the Darfur region. A mountain of evidence stares him in the face. In the past South Africa, Malawi, Botswana, and Uganda have threatened to arrest him and hand him over to the ICC should he step on their soil. On a visit to Nigeria, Mr Bashir fled midway through dinner to avoid a court order for his arrest.

That’s why it came as a surprise Mr Zuma invited him to the AU in South Africa. The high court in Pretoria ordered Mr Bashir arrested, but Mr Zuma secretly snuck him out of the country. Mr Bashir, the ICC fugitive, fled like a thief in the night with a tail between his legs. Why does South Africa have to regress to such low depths? What was the struggle all about?

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