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Cllr Matt Wright: South Africa's difficult democratic journey

Cllr Matt Wright, PPC for the Vale of Clwyd, comments on recent political developments in South Africa following a visit to the region.

Our trip to the austere and evocative Apartheid Museum in Jo'burg was delayed by the increasing number of power cuts which cause traffic chaos and exasperate businesses. I strongly recommend anyone to visit the musuem (funded as a planning gain arrangement with a casino of all things) if they wish to understand the diverse currents that flow through the South African psyche. Africa is about huge contrasts, something you see in the scenery, the society and the politics. The struggle for freedom expressed in the museum is very moving and challenging and it highlights just how apartheid was a doomed way of thinking. There are also diverse currents that run through this story and much that the centre-right can draw from it. I was struck by the central importance of individualism, normally scorned by the left here in Europe but to those denied rights, so obviously at the core of their human identity, dignity and freedom. At the other end of the scale there were the huge international power shifts that created the backdrop to the story. Less obvious elements emerged from this as critical turning points, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall - with the communist threat beginning to dry up in Africa there was a window of opportunity for change.

Of course the key figure of unity in this story post-apartheid has been Nelson Mandela, a product of the perhaps softer Cape and admired and respected across the community but now in his ninetieth year. The current President is Thabo Mbeki, educated in Britain but reaching the end of his fixed term and troubled by the resignation of his Police Commissioner, Selebi, under corruption charges. The new leader of the ANC and presidential hopeful, is Jacob Zuma from the northern Natal area, once jailed alongside Mandela but a different politician in many ways. Zuma has been dogged by corruption stories, rape trials and further trials expected to come. Corruption centred on allegations of kick-backs from arms deals and his trial on rape charges featured statements that as the woman was aroused he had a duty to engage in sex and although his alleged victim was HIV positive and he didn't wear a condom, he had taken a shower. Ever since Zuma has been portrayed in cartoons with a shower head permanently fixed to his head as if apparently there to try and wash away any political mud that might stick. Of course talk in cafes and restaurants in South Africa almost always ends in an apparent knowing look, a roll of the eyes and mention of the "c" word - corruption - but the feeling is that things could get worse for Zuma. Perhaps in anticipation of this he made a policy speech in Atteridgeville which implied criticism will not be tolerated, apparently raising the idea of some form of censorship.

There is a tension in South Africa, something not unusual for the continent, but heightened in its economic powerhouse of late. Western business people, including younger idealists charged with forging a new way, are increasingly less hopeful. Aside from the West, South Africa is seen anew as just a huge mineral resource, this time for China, which is buying up companies in the region. Kenya, once seen as stable, is suffering suprising political unrest and blighted by a rising body count largely under reported. Too many townships in South Africa still suffer grinding poverty and lack of electricity and sewerage and any hope for the future rests on maintaining South Africa as a diverse, business friendly powerhouse. Eskom, South Africas electricity generator, euphemistically justifies the increasing power cuts to residents and despairing businesses with terms such as "power shedding", as if the problem is the fault of the population. Such cuts harm both ends of the social spectrum not just the failing electric fences of the rich. On more than one night we sat around candles and heard gun fire in the streets outside. South Africa is still on a very long and difficult democratic journey and I hope that Mandela's more rounded unifying, vision continues and wins over after the great man has gone. 


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