South Africa - Plus Ça Change...

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What I found particularly shocking about politics in South Africa today is the chauvinistic and frequently racist abuse from ANC politicians which President Zuma makes no attempt to curb. He may have neutralised Julius Malema, the rich young ANC thug and former Youth League leader, by pinning corruption charges on him, but the abuse continues from within the party.

So can the opposition parties gain more than a third of the vote? Yes, but only if they work together. In the 2009 election the Democratic Alliance (DA), led by the formidable Helen Zille, former mayor of Cape Town, won 16.7% of the vote and 67 seats. The DA have always won support from white liberals, but now they also have a strong following from mixed race communities as well as the Indians and increasingly middle class blacks fed up with the ANC's poor record on 'service delivery'.

The other main parties from the last election are the Congress of the People (COPE), comprised mainly by supporters of ex-President Mbeki - they split from the ANC in 2008 after Thabo's defenestration by Zuma and his ANC comrades. COPE won 7.4% of the vote in 2008 but is probably now a spent force. The Inkatha Freedom Party has traditionally gained significant support from Zulu voters and took 4.6% of the vote at the last polls, but it is in long-term decline.

These two parties have now been joined by Agang, recently formed by Mamphela Ramphele, who has been Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town and Chairman of GoldFields. She comes from the Black Consciousness movement of the 1970s and has impeccable 'struggle credentials' - being the former partner of Steve Biko (although her own achievements in academia and business make her truly impressive in her own right). Both she and Ms Zille will be battling for the black and white middle class vote. Having failed to reach agreement to form a single opposition party, can they, separately, take enough votes from the ANC to gain national momentum? Or will their very failure to unite at a time when cooperation was needed leave their supporters feeling they will be casting a wasted vote?

Judging by the press in South Africa - admittedly over Christmas when everyone is on holiday - politics are not top of everyone's agenda, any more than in the UK. The media is far more interested in the personal and parochial - and of course sport. But much of the UK runs itself while South Africa and Africa as a whole depends far more on who has political power. Decisions made at the highest level in developing countries matter to all in a much more immediate way than they do in developed countries. Africa's failure to develop in the past has been a failure of leadership. To misquote Bill Clinton: "It's the politics stupid."

There is good leadership in Africa. For example in the churches, in business, in sport, music and a hundred other areas, but at the level of national - let alone continental - politics, there is a terrible deficit. Africa's giants, Nigeria and South Africa are both led by small-minded men whose main aim is to remain in power as long as they can. Neither Goodluck Jonathan, nor Jacob Zuma has a vision and neither of them are orators. Both manoeuvred themselves into the presidency by internal politicking, not national popularity. They read speeches as if they have never seen the words before and they seem to spend more time on accumulating fortunes than leading their countries.

What other countries have the weight to speak for the continent? Ghana has an articulate and careful leader and the political elite has managed its differences well recently, but its leadership role on the rest of the continent has dwindled. Cote d'Ivoire also had a primus inter pares role among the Francophone countries, but after its collapse in 1999 it has struggled to find a continental role. Ethiopia has a quietly impressive new prime minister in Haile Mariam Desalegn but he has yet to demonstrate continent-wide leadership. The North Africans are too wrapped up in their own internal problems to offer much to the rest of Africa.

Most bright young Africans are going into business rather than politics and some into the better NGOs. The next big question is will they then turn to politics when they have made their fortunes? Will they do so to protect their gains or even increase them, or will they offer the same vision and skills in running their countries as they did in running their companies? In South Africa Cyril Ramphosa has returned to politics having set up an extremely successful business. He might soon become president. Could this start a trend?

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles. For more of Richard's blogs click here. Follow Richard on twitter @DowdenAfrica

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