"South Africa's is a precarious society." So says Geoff Budlender, one of the country's leading human rights lawyers, commenting on the gap between the vision of socioeconomic justice contained in one of the most modern and internationally renowned constitutions and the reality of chronic poverty endured by the majority of South Africans. For example, 8 million people, out of a population of around 50 million, do not have access to clean water. In 2007, a community in the famous Johannesburg township of Soweto challenged the lack of access by claiming that the city was infringing on the constitutional right to water. The court found that the system of prepay meters that had been installed was unlawful and ordered that the city provide the residents of the community with 50 liters of water per day. The government has appealed the decision, but the case shows the best and worst of modern South Africa: On the one hand, an active citizen movement is claiming its rights, backed by a strong rule of law and a decent court system. On the other, a wealthy country is still coming to terms with the socioeconomic inequalities engraved by decades of apartheid.

Surprisingly, the poor do not seem to blame the slow rate of socioeconomic change on the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), which has won every democratic election since 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected as South Africa's first black president. Although the ANC's total vote dropped by 4%, their election victory in 2009 -- South Africa's fourth election, and again, entirely free from violence -- was still decisive, with 65.9% of the popular vote. The opposition struggles to take full advantage of the failures of the government to deliver public services effectively. Even a breakaway party of former ANC cabinet ministers, led by "Terror" Lekota in late 2008, failed to make a dent in the ANC's support: The Congress of the People (COPE) secured just 7.42% at the election.

All is not lost for the opposition, however. Building on a record of stable government in Cape Town, the official opposition (16.66%), the Democratic Alliance (DA), won a historic victory in 2009 when it wrested control of the Western Cape provincial government from the ANC -- the first time an opposition party has won a majority in any of the nine provinces since 1994.

The 2009 election result brought Jacob Zuma to power -- a politician who has developed an international profile for all the wrong reasons. Fired by his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, from his position as deputy president in 2005, Zuma waged a series of battles within his own party and in the courts, finally ousting Mbeki months before the election. It was a power struggle with many twists and turns, often reading like a John Le Carre novel with plenty of dodgy spies (and, yes, spawning a number of books, such as Andrew Feinstein's excellent After the Party). First, Zuma was charged with corruption; the charges were dismissed on a technicality. Then he was charged with the rape of a young woman who was staying with him, but he was found not guilty. Notoriously, when giving evidence in his own defense, Zuma told the court that he did have unprotected sexual intercourse even though he knew the woman was HIV positive, because in his culture it was necessary to satisfy the sexual needs of a woman, adding that he had taken a shower afterward, as a precautionary measure. (Ever since, internationally acclaimed South African cartoonist Zapiro has drawn Zuma with a shower sticking out of his head). Throughout, Zuma, the former head of the ANC's intelligence wing during the struggle against apartheid, presented himself as a victim of the Mbeki-led new political establishment. He carefully plotted his revenge, building a coalition of enemies of Mbeki, including the leftist trade union federation (COSATU) and the S.A. Communist Party. When Zuma went on to beat Mbeki to the leadership of the ANC at a passionate and, at times, acrimonious national conference at Polokwane in December 2007, the National Prosecuting Authority simply reinstated the corruption charges. When it subsequently emerged that the senior investigator was in conversation with senior pro-Mbeki political leaders, and probably the president himself, the NPA dropped the charges just weeks before the April 2009 general election, even though it said that they still had a strong case against him on the merits of the corruption charges.

Famous for his populist tendencies and his ability to whip up a crowd with his traditional Zulu dancing and singing of his trademark song Mashimi Wam (Bring Me My Machine Gun), Zuma has to reconcile the urgent needs of the black, working-class poor who voted him into office with the anxieties of a corporate sector that is already under pressure from the global economic meltdown. Lucky, then, that Zuma's closest friends describe him as a "reconciler by instinct." Indeed, he has taken a strong verbal stance against cronyism, while embracing dialogue with virtually every stakeholder. As he came into office, Zuma faced an economy in retreat after 10 years of steady growth (averaging 4% per annum in the 2000s) and consequent rises in unemployment. Official estimates numbered those out of work at 23%, but discounting those in the informal economy, the figure is closer to 40%. The much anticipated soccer World Cup in 2010 has provided a much-needed boost in infrastructure and, in return, is hoped to swell the state coffers. Whether the ANC will use this opportunity and root out the systemic corruption that flourished during the Mbeki years -- and fully deliver on their slogan, "A better life for all" -- time alone will tell.

by Richard Calland

Executive Director, Open Democracy Advice Centre and author of Anatomy of South Africa: Who Holds the Power?

Truth + Guilt + Apology = Reconciliation?

Following South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was formed to investigate human rights abuses under apartheid rule. The many victims of apartheid were invited to voice their anger and pain before the commission, headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and to confront directly the perpetrators of these abuses in a public forum. In return for full disclosure, aggressors, regardless of their political persuasion, could ask for forgiveness and amnesty from prosecution. Although many white South Africans went into denial, many more for the first time faced the realities of what apartheid meant. Wrenching images of keening relatives listening to killers, some coldly, others in tears, describing exactly how they had tortured and killed those once officially described as "missing persons" or "accidental deaths" were broadcast nationwide. Those whom the commission thought had not made a full disclosure were denied amnesty, as were those who could not prove that they were acting on behalf of a political cause. While some found solace in the process, many more yearned for a more equitable punishment than mere admission of wrongdoing.

Twenty-seven months of painful confessions and $25 million later, the commission concluded its investigation, handing over the report to Nelson Mandela on October 29, 1998. But the 22,000 victims of gross human rights violations had to wait until April 2003 to hear that each would receive a onetime payment of R30,000, a decision that was greeted with dismay by the victims. In contrast, big businesses (and most whites) were relieved to hear that the government had rejected the TRC's proposed tax surcharge on corporations, as well as the threatened legal action driven by New York lawyer Ed Fagan and others against companies that had benefited from apartheid, opting for "cooperative and voluntary partnerships." Mbeki emphasized that the TRC was not expected to bring about reconciliation, but was "an important contributor to the larger process of building a new South Africa."

While it is true that the commission affected a more accurate rendition of recent history, its focus on an individualized rather than a collective approach to human rights abuses under apartheid demanded little by way of white acknowledgement of collective guilt for the suffering their fellow citizens endured. It is against this backdrop that the Home for All campaign launched in 2000. Initiated, ironically, primarily by whites involved in the liberation struggle, the campaign was supposed to indicate the willingness of white South Africans to accept that they had personally benefited from apartheid, with signatories pledging to use their skills and resources to contribute to "empowering disadvantaged people, and promoting a nonracial society whose resources are used to the benefit of all its people."

But apologies come hard in South Africa: According to a Reconciliation Barometer, published by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation soon after (www.ijr.org.za), only 22% of whites believed they had benefited from apartheid, and only 29% believed that they should apologize. The debate remains robust, and the pros and cons of the government's enforced "affirmative action" policies (which appear to have done little but transfer a portion of wealth into the hands of a relatively small group, while entrenching racial friction) still dominate the pages of local newspapers. Despite this, it appears that forgiveness has taken place, albeit in individual hearts. You can read some South African stories on www.theforgivenessproject.com.

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