I reported on this story back in January, but today is the day that the yogurt hits the fan. South Africans are voting in an election that, in my opinion, will define their future as a nation - and perhaps the future of the entire region. At the very least, this is the most pivotal election since the end of apartheid.
Not that the outcome is in doubt. Every one knows that that the African National Congress (ANC) party will win well over half the seats in parliament - just like they always do - allowing them to elect their leader, Jacob Zuma, as President of South Africa. There are, however, two big differences this time. The first is that Mr. Zuma is a corrupt barbarian who reminds me far more of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe than Nelson Mandela (read my January column for grisly details). The second is that, for the first time in years, there is the potential that the ANC could lose its two-thirds majority - which allows the party to change the constitution whenever it wants.
Here's why I think this is important: The ANC was an important force in ending apartheid, but its post apartheid dominance has made South Africa essentially a one party state. Furthermore, Jacob Zuma and his supporters have moved the ANC closer to authoritarianism by moving to sideline the supporters of former President Thabo Mbeki - even forcing Mbeki himself to resign and hand the presidency to a Zuma supporter. Luckily, many Mbeki supporters were smart enough to leave the ANC and form their own party, the Congress of the People (COPE), which could pull 10% away from the ANC. This could push the non-ANC parties over the one-third mark.
I have come to think that South Africa will inevitably slide away from democracy unless the ANC's hold on power can be replaced with a true multiparty system, and the emergence of COPE makes this possible. However, I would not be voting COPE today if I were South African, I would be supporting the other major opposition party - the Democratic Alliance (DA).
Despite the media focus on COPE, there are two reasons why I think that the DA is more important to South African democracy. First, the DA is liberal and market-friendly, whereas COPE shares the ANC's socialist leanings. Second, the DA is the only major post-racial party in South Africa. The ANC grew out of the movement to empower the black community (a a good goal under apartheid), and it has remained a black party - and obviously COPE was part of the ANC until last year. The DA, on the other hand, grew out of the anti-apartheid movement among white South Africans. Its current leader, Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille, is a white woman and a former member Black Sash movement - a group of white women who stood against against apartheid and fought for black rights. Zille was also named World Mayor of the Year in 2008.
In any true multiparty democracy, Zille would likely be the runaway favorite to win the Presidency - after all, she's literally the best mayor in the world and shes a former civil rights crusader to boot. Unfortunately, South Africa is a de-facto one-party state, and Zille's DA is forced to fight COPE for a distant second. Meanwhile, the authoritarian Zuma is poised to take power - and the once-venerated ANC is starting to look more and more like the Zimbabwean ZANU-PF party of Robert Mugabe.
So, here's hoping that South Africa takes the right step by denying the ANC its two-thirds majority and continues marching toward democracy. Furthermore, while I am grateful to COPE for taking a stand against Zuma, I fervently hope that the DA can remain the second biggest party.
South Africa has come a long way since the days of apartheid. However, the legacy of that dark time will not be fully eliminated until the country ceases to be dominated by a single party. Furthermore, if apartheid was really in the past, then a tolerant white woman like Helen Zille, who clearly has far more credibility than Zuma, would be able to win election despite the majority-black electorate. However, anyone with a bran knows that Zille will not be President-elect tomorrow morning - proving that apartheid is still alive and well.
To all of my friends in South Africa - the choice is yours. You can keep the ANC supermajority and march toward third-world oblivion, or you can take another tiny step toward a post-racial, democratic future. Take your pick.