As the Beijing Olympics take-off, predictably and literally, with flying colours, China has set a new standard in organising major sporting events. A brand new stadium, the world’s fastest train and the largest airport in the world are some of the brighter aspects people will remember of the tournament.
In contrast, South Africa, the nation hosting the next world sporting event – the football World Cup in 2010 – has been troubled by problems in construction so severe that the country exceeded the time delay margin permissible by Fifa, the world football governing body, before construction even began, forcing Fifa’s top official to say: “I would be a very negligent president if I hadn’t put away in a drawer somewhere a Plan B.”
Could there be a direct link between the woes currently plaguing South Africa’s hardware infrastructure as seen in its construction delays, and the troubles plaguing its software infrastructure as embodied in its leadership crisis?
South Africa’s story is one of struggle and perseverance; a story of triumph in the face of injustice that enabled the nation to free itself from the evils of apartheid in the early 1990s. Soon after his election as the first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela initiated a courageous healing process that culminated with the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in which the country began to account for its past. The TRC was so successful that its influence was felt throughout Africa and was emulated in Morocco and Sierra Leone.
South Africa in the 1990s restored the faith of all Africans in their continent and put to shame the racist system that had plagued the nation for many decades. In the last major elections however, its citizens had to settle for a choice in leadership, not in the best person to lead, but between the lesser of two evils.
In the dying days of 2007, two years after he was ousted by his former ally-turned-rival and current president, Thabo Mbeki, the fiery Jacob Zuma was elected leader of the dominant Africa National Congress party that has ruled South Africa since Mr Mandela was elected president in 1994.
An ethnic Zulu politician, Mr Zuma served an entire decade in jail during the apartheid years after joining the MK, the military wing of the ANC. The MK carried out numerous attacks in the country including the notorious Church Street bombing of 1982 in which innocent civilians were killed.
Recently, during a multi-billion dollar corruption case currently pending in court against Mr Zuma, his backers, including MK veterans, took to shouting alarming slogans, such as “No Zuma, No country”. His supporters previously celebrated Mr Zuma’s election as leader of the ANC with an apartheid era song entitled Bring Me My Machine Gun.
Possibly due to a culture that celebrates such songs, South Africa is plagued by one of the highest murder and rape rates in the world. In the 12 months leading up to March 2008, over 18,000 people were murdered – more than 50 a day – including over 1,100 children, while 36,000 women were raped.
Mr Mbeki peculiarly holds the opinion that crime isn’t “out of control”. One of his ministers, insinuating that it was only white people who complained about the crime rate, suggested that “they should get out if they don’t like it”.
The high murder rates compound the health problems that this country of 45 million individuals already faces; life expectancy averages a brief 43 years for both sexes. Despite the epidemic proportions that HIV/Aids has reached, with more than 20 per cent of the adult population infected, both Messrs Mbeki and Zuma display serious ignorance of the disease. The first by naively denying a link between the HIV virus and Aids and the latter by saying he took a shower after having unprotected sex with an HIV-infected woman to reduce the chances of his infection.
Mr. Zuma, who has taken four wives, was also acquitted of rape charges and claimed that the intercourse was consensual because he wouldn’t have risked raping a woman while his own daughter was in the house.
Recently, despite the fact that four million Zimbabweans have fled their country, mostly into South Africa, escaping bloodshed, tyranny and an astronomical inflation rate of 2.2 million percent, Mr. Mbeki foolishly stated that “there is no crisis in Zimbabwe”.
South Africans deserve leaders of moral integrity, character and intelligence who do not celebrate machine gun culture, shower after adulterous sex to avoid Aids, and deny soaring crime rates. They deserve leaders who can take the rainbow nation beyond the football championships, leaping above “Plan B” and into the 21st century.
This article was originally published in The National on August 10, 2008.