Saturday, April 18, 2009

A good head and a good heart in South Africa

"A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.” - Nelson Mandela

The African National Congress is almost certain to be the winner of the South African election. This is viewed in the west as a loss for democracy. It's not the case. True there is widening inequality, corruption and a battle between institutions of the state. But that's normal for a developing country.

Like the first few years of independence in India, South Africa is dominated by a liberation movement. In this case it's the ANC. In India's it was the Indian National Congress. Mandela led his country to freedom. Nehru did the same for India. The adoration for both men kept alive the spirit of their young nations. Like the INC, the ANC is fragmenting. There will be regionalism. There will emerge perhaps linguistic parties or tribal politics. It is normal.

True African independence and liberation movements generally fail on three counts: leadership without dictatorship, building democracy and running sound economies. Whatever the failures of Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma I don't think there's been a mission critical mistake.

Western commentators will remain sceptical. My friend Ram Guha, the Indian historian, collects such sentiments about India's prospects when it was born more than 60 years ago. Here's a few choice ones:

'Indians will (not may) - Indians will soon vote in their first and surely last general elections' - Neville Maxwell, India correspondent the Times from the 1960s.

'An army of German janissaries would have to be imported to secure the armed ascendancy of the Hindus.' - Winston Churchill.

Actually Britain's chief of army staff in India at the time of independence thought the place will disintegrate in a few years into 20 nations.

Proof that former colonialists never understood their subjects and never will. And also hope that people are wrong today too about South Africa's failure to "secure democracy".

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