Will Africa's flagship nation, South Africa, become a Zimbabwe, its economy and laws run aground by a "big man" leader? That's the question being asked in the wake of a political upset there. Also relevant are parallels to a deeply divided Kenya, where ethnic violence has erupted over a contested election.
The comparisons spring from last month's battle for leadership of South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress.
A populist, Jacob Zuma, decisively toppled President Thabo Mbeki for ANC leader and is expected to easily win the 2009 presidential election, if he is not convicted on corruption charges first. Brows furrowed among the elite, however, at the thought of Mr. Zuma, professed socialist, being in control of the continent's anchor economy. South Africa is experiencing its most robust prosperity since World War II, with the economy expanding at an annual average rate of 5.2 percent over the last three years.
But the elite's concern may be overblown. The ANC upset demonstrated progress toward political plurality, not an about-face toward autocracy, as occurred in neighboring Zimbabwe. The ANC election – its first open ballot in nearly 60 years – revealed an ability to change leaders peaceably, if raucously.
As Zuma's supporters correctly point out, the election showed South Africa is not like its neighbor, ruled by one man for nearly three decades. Indeed, Zuma has reassured the business community. And he hints he will be far more publicly critical of Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe than the current South African president, whose approach is disappointingly timid.
A more serious concern is whether South Africa might someday erupt in fatal rioting, as in Kenya this week. There, too, the economy is growing at a 5 percent clip, making it a regional powerhouse. But in a worrisome parallel, wealth is not trickling down to the poor. That's fanned the flames of tribalism and resentment.
The declared winner in Kenya's national elections, incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, belongs to a tribe that has controlled business and politics since Kenya's independence 45 years ago. Pre-election polls showed him trailing, and the initial vote count did, too. But he was somehow declared the victor, with international observers pointing to serious voting irregularities.
In South Africa, the rich-poor divide helped propel Zuma to victory. With official unemployment at 25 percent, many voters may overlook his brushes with the law (he was acquitted of rape last year) in hopes that he can spread wealth more evenly and reduce violent crime, another unchecked scourge. While the ANC prides itself as above tribalism, Zuma and his supporters make much of his roots as a Zulu – South Africa's largest ethnic group. Does his victory over Mr. Mbeki – who, like his predecessor Nelson Mandela, belongs to the politically dominant Xhosas group – portend a dangerous ethnic rivalry?
Exactly what path South Africa will take remains unclear, but it is entering a new phase in its post-apartheid history. If it is to be successful, it will have to do a much better job of bringing the poor along with it. The grassroots, as Zuma shows, demand it.