During April, South Africans went to the polls to elect a new government, in an election widely described as the most important since the end of Apartheid 15 years ago.  As expected, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) led by its populist head,  Jacob Zuma, won by a landslide majority, securing 65.9% of the vote, just shy of the two-thirds threshold required to change the constitution. The country’s main opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), led by Helen Zille, former Mayor of Cape Town and newly-elected Premier of the Western Cape, following her party’s election majority in the province, took 16.6% of the vote, while the Congress of the Party (COPE), a breakaway faction of the ANC, came in third with 7.4% of the vote.

 Although the overall outcome of the elections was widely predicted months in advance, the April polls represented a new page in the history of one of Africa’s youngest democracies, as South Africans are looking to a future away from their iconic struggle for freedom.  With a large numbers of voters too young to remember the apartheid era, South Africans look to the ANC to deliver on their election promises. The most important of these are to address increasing corruption in government, rising inequality in income, an unacceptably high crime rate, deteriorating public services, poor educational standards and a deteriorating health system,  unmanageable illegal immigration, as well as one of the world’s highest incidences of HIV/AIDS. 

 Frustrations, brewing among the country’s middle class and the poor, with the ANC’s track record of trying to deal with the country’s socio-economic ills, coupled with the widespread uneasiness and skepticism about a Zuma presidency, preoccupy the new administration.  The controversial election of Zuma to the party leadership last year, his high-profile rape court case, and the recent court decision to drop fraud and corruption charges against him due to alleged political interference in his case, have exposed weaknesses and party divisions in the ANC that once were unthinkable during the iconic Mandela presidency.   

 COPE, together with the DA, presents an important opportunity for challenging ANC candidates in their bid for government.  With an energized and ever more confident opposition, the ANC finds itself in an increasingly precarious position, having to answer to its critics who contend that it is struggling to make the necessary transition from Africa’s most prominent liberation struggle movement to one of the continent’s most important governing parties.  For Zuma, this election serves as an opportunity to put to rest questions surrounding his political orientation to the left, allegations of corruption, as well as growing cultural conservatism that some fear would undermine the country’s Western-styled liberal Constitution, rule of law and governing institutions.  The country’s president is also under considerable pressure from his main constituents, namely the country’s poor black majority, as well as from the ANC’s traditional allies, namely the South African Communist Party and the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). The latter two are demanding a break with what they regard as “crony capitalism” and the pro-business market policies of Zuma’s predecessor, that have provided relatively little in the way of economic dividends for the vast majority of South Africans. 

 Zuma himself is of a modest background.  His rise to power has been astonishing – from a young child, lacking a formal education, to a dedicated veteran of the decades-long liberation struggle for the right of racial equality.  And now he is the leader of the largest and most powerful political party in South Africa, representing those who, for decades, have never had a voice.  The opportunity to move South Africa forward – instead of backward – must be harnessed and his social and political blemishes cannot be allowed to weaken either the rule of law or government’s accountability to the people.  Zuma has the charisma to lead the country towards growing prosperity, but he must not allow personal ambitions or power to stand in the way of his capacity to act without prejudice in the interests of all South Africans.

 Since the end of apartheid, South Africa’s economic and democratic strength has been a beacon of hope for the 47 sub-Saharan African countries.  The electoral success of the ANC and the presidential victory of Jacob Zuma will hold important implications for the region as a whole.  And a declaration of unwillingness to accept Robert Mugabe’s painful policies and woeful inaction in Zimbabwe may be one of the positive outcomes.  Unfortunately, Zuma is, however, not a role-model for the containment of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which continues to ravage communities, and which is what the continent so urgently needs.

 The new South African president will continue to leave a mark on history, as he has already done.  The question remains, however, whether he could rise to the challenge of carrying on the legacy left behind by his predecessors of good governance, leadership, and strong economic policies and democratic values. South Africa – and the continent as a whole – depends on the symbolic pillars that the country is heralded for, and which were established during the nation’s struggle to overcome the challenges of the past.  It is of utmost importance to realize and understand that these dare not disappear into obscurity now.

 Hany Besada is Senior Researcher and Program Leader at The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Canada. Paul Cescon is a Balsillie Fellow with the Balsillie School of International Affairs.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.