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South Africa's report card on democracy gets worse

South Africa ranks fifth for governance in Africa, but its scores have consistently declined over the past five years, with diminished press freedoms and rule of law, writes guest blogger Karl Beck.

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Zuma’s future could also hinge on a March 20 ruling of the Supreme Court of Appeal, which ordered the national prosecutor to show the DA documents related to the prosecutor’s 2009 decision not to pursue 783 corruption charges against Zuma. The Supreme Court found that the DA has standing to demand the documents in the public interest. The charges involved an arms deal during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, when Zuma was vice president, in which foreign suppliers of weapons, ships, and airplanes had bribed senior South African officials. The man who served as Zuma’s go-between with the arms dealers has already been convicted for facilitating the bribery of Zuma. However, shortly before he became president, Zuma succeeded in having the legal proceedings stopped, citing evidence that the prosecutor had manipulated the timing of his case to improve the political prospects of Mbeki, then Zuma’s principal rival. But the charges against Zuma have not been judged on their merits, and if the Supreme Court decision eventually opens the door for a trial, Zuma’s position as president might become untenable. Within days of the March 20 judgment, the justice minister, an ardent Zuma ally, moved to add the Supreme Court to the executive branch’s review of judicial decisions, which had initially targeted only the Constitutional Court. This response  has been viewed by most commentators as a raw expression of pique.
 At present, South Africa risks entering an antidemocratic spiral from which it would be difficult to escape. The Southern Africa region, of which South Africa is the wealthiest and most powerful country, includes seven states whose ruling parties have been in power without interruption since independence. During 2012, these parties’ cumulative years of incumbency will reach 237. The South African contribution is the smallest at 18 years. Although the region includes regimes ranging from dictatorships to democracies, there is a perceptible drift in even the more liberal states toward authoritarianism and impatience with the messy inconveniences of political pluralism and a free society.
 South Africa is widely viewed as the flagship of both Southern Africa and sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. The present incremental weakening of representative and accountable government in the country therefore has both national and continental implications for human rights, the rule of law, and the quality of governance. Corruption, which is both an agent and a beneficiary of the erosion of democracy, is a potent threat to economic development and the alleviation of poverty. A South African government that continues to accommodate corruption while hacking away at independent institutions will serve neither the legitimate interests of South Africans nor the hopes of millions of others that South Africa might lead the continent toward a better future.

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– Karl Beck is Southern Africa Projects Director at Freedom House

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