Is South Africa about to become more 'African'?

Populist Jacob Zuma's expected victory in Wednesday's presidential poll unnerves some well-to-do South Africans, but others are drawn to his commitment to the traditional value of 'ubuntu.'

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/FILE
Shown here in May 2008, OlgaThimbela and her husband Pontsho Monamodi stand with their children in Tshepisong, near Johannesburg, South Africa. The couple has adopted six children whose mothers died of AIDS. Ubuntu, a central concept in southern African cultures, which literally means "being a human being," can be seen in the many families who take in AIDS orphans.

Rising crime, crumbling roads, pernicious corruption, and landslide victories for the ruling party in charge: these are the signs that South Africa – so "First World" at first appearance – is now on the decline.

But the one complaint that seems to top them all here these days is that the country is becoming more "African."

That particular gripe usually comes from well-to-do South Africans – white and black – who are worried about the trajectory of the country once populist leader Jacob Zuma takes power after he wins Wednesday's presidential election, which he is all but certain to do.

It's a statement that conjures the frenzied dysfunction of Nigeria, the brutal despotism of Zimbabwe, the power-madness of Kenyan politicians, and the genocidal civil wars that strike Rwanda and Sudan's Darfur.

Indeed, with Mr. Zuma – a man with a grade-school education, a polygamist, who has definitely tilted his party away from the monied suburbs and toward the black African masses – many South Africans are finally coming to grips with what it means to live on the African continent.

Yet a closer look at the values that South African blacks practice at home, and the expectations they have of their leaders, suggests that some of this pessimism – exemplified by Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio's sour explanation, "This is Africa," in the movie "Blood Diamond" – is a bit overdone. A truly majority-run South Africa may not operate the way a foreigner or European immigrant would expect, but it is also a culture with its own well-defined approach to culture and justice.

The 'ubuntu' spirit

A central concept in southern African cultures is the notion of ubuntu, which literally means "being a human being."

"If you look at ubuntu, that is the way in which people look after those who are vulnerable and weak," says Dumiso Matshazi, a political analyst in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called. Ubuntu is a collective compassion that holds people together, that won't allow someone to starve or to remain homeless; it is the glue that can hold society together, he adds.

Ubuntu, seen in the many families who take in AIDS orphans, and in voluntary township soup kitchens, has been weakened significantly in recent years, anthropologist Pearl Sithole says, as blacks move from tightly knit rural areas to the cities in search for jobs, and as politically connected Africans use their personal connections to achieve personal wealth.

"The idea of ubuntu survives, but it has been contravened by the current economic consensus," says Ms. Sithole, a researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council in Durban. "But most communities in South Africa are bound by ubuntu, the notion that if your brother dies, you are obliged to engulf his family as your own."

Ubuntu is what South African black voters expect to hear from their leaders at election time – a reassurance that common sense and decency will prevail. Those black politicians who talk in abstract terms of economic growth may reassure white South Africans and educated members of the black middle class, but they leave many African voters cold, Sithole says.

Jacob Zuma's common touch

"People look from a point of view of what a leader can do for them," she says, and while "educated South Africans might appreciate what [former President Thabo Mbeki] has done, you hear people talk of his coldness and his abstract achievements." By comparison, "people like Zuma because he tends to spend time locally. He observes local traditions. He listens. He is sympathetic, and he can say, 'I have gone through the same thing.' "

Many white South Africans see in Zuma the stereotype of the African Big Man politician – a man who uses political power to build up himself and his cronies. But many Zuma supporters say he will be the exact opposite.

Rather than looting the national treasuries and natural resources, in the mode of Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, Uganda's Idi Amin, or Nigeria's Sani Abacha, they say, he will be more keen to ensure that national services like education, hospitals, clean drinking water, and electricity are shared more equitably, especially among the poor.

"The Ndebele people have a saying 'Indla muva yi nkosi,' which means 'the king eats last,' " says Matshazi, referring to an ethnic group living in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Africans expect their kings to share the largesse in a trickle-down fashion, holding massive feasts for the elders of the tribe and making decisions only after the elders have formed a consensus, he says. "An African leader who feeds himself first, like [Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe], would be seen as a useless leader, because he doesn't share."

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