South Africa's next chapter

A transition in the presidency has big implications for the continent and the country.

Get ready for a power shift in Africa's superpower. The continent's biggest economy and its democratic guiding light, South Africa faces a significant transition with the resignation of President Thabo Mbeki after nine years in office. It needs to seize this opportunity.

Waiting in the wings to take over after elections expected next year is Jacob Zuma, Mr. Mbeki's archrival in the dominant African National Congress party. But what are the real policies of Mr. Zuma? The populist leader, who this month escaped corruption charges on a technicality and was acquitted of rape in 2006, has avid communist and ANC supporters who want to ditch the fiscal discipline that attracts so much foreign investment to South Africa.

On the other hand, Zuma has traveled from Paris to New York to reassure investors that "nothing is going to change" – except poverty, education, and healthcare, which are all in desperate need of change.

Mbeki, like Nelson Mandela before him, had decided to focus more on growing the economy than on redistributing wealth.

The question about Zuma is critical because the country that threw off apartheid less than 20 years ago is critical to Africa's future.

Its economy is more than twice the size of its nearest African rival, Nigeria. Under Mbeki, the economy has enjoyed its longest-running expansion since World War II. A small black middle class has been born, dubbed the "black diamonds." South Africa has sent troops for peacekeeping in Sudan. It has mediated in Ivory Coast and helped pull off a historic power-sharing deal (now in trouble) in Zimbabwe.

But Mbeki's steady hand that contained inflation and deficits somehow wasn't able to lift up enough poor or create enough jobs. Nearly half the country lives in poverty – down from 58 percent in 2000, but still intolerably high. Joblessness runs at nearly 40 percent. South Africa has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and the second highest number of people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

All that's enough to cause an explosion, which is what happened a few months in an immigrant backlash that killed dozens of migrants.

Nor was Mbeki able to connect with ordinary South Africans. His aloof style turned off many and helped provide the opening for the charismatic man-of-the-people, Zuma – a widower's son with no formal schooling, but with a long anti-apartheid history, including imprisonment on Robben Island. He served as South Africa's deputy president until Mbeki fired him in 2005, after Zuma's financial adviser was found guilty of soliciting a bribe on his behalf.

As a man of the people, Zuma seems to want to please everyone, and for that reason, he keeps them guessing. To fight crime, he hints he'll reinstate the death penalty, but he's against it. He's said employers should have more flexibility in firing, but promises not to erode worker rights. That the country's minister of finance is staying on during the transition is a hopeful sign of Zuma's fiscal intentions.

South Africa has tremendous potential, as a nation rich in resources, talent, and democratic promise (it's held three successful elections since the end of apartheid – though the premature ousting of Mbeki is troublesome). It needs now to shift into higher gear. Between now and next year, Zuma must show, not just talk, reassurance.

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