Fifteen years since the end of the Apartheid regime, South Africa’s politics have once again caught the headlines. The impending general election in April will be a major measure of the country’s progress over the last decade and a half and along with the brokering of a solution in Zimbabwe will show the extent to which South Africa has or has not become a beacon for southern African democracy.Archbishop Desmond Tutu was in UCD last week to receive a Fellowship of the Literary and Historical Society (L&H) and kindly agreed to talk to The University Observer about political progress in his homeland.Tutu has been synonymous with political reform in South Africa for over 30 years. Having campaigned tirelessly against apartheid, he has also be a measured critic of the ruling ANC (African National Congress) party and its former leader Thabo Mbeki.Asked whether the country had in some ways gone backwards in the last five years, he points out that South Africa has come a very long way, especially given that it had a huge deficit to make up after apartheid. In particular, the deliberate failure of the former regime to provide schools, housing and health services for black South Africans meant there was a lot of work to be done.Nonetheless, Tutu describes current levels of poverty as unconscionable. Despite reasonably strong economic growth up until now, the income gap between the richest and poorest people in the land is vast.Tutu attributes some of the slow progress to the de facto one party state that has existed in South Africa with the ANC enjoying almost total dominance in the three free and fair elections since 1994. He welcomes the fact though that the ANC has been “shaken out of their complacency” by the emergence of new political players like the Congress of the People (COPE).It’s clear that democracy and equality before the law have brought considerable improvements in the lives of black South Africans. Levels of absolute poverty have been reduced and most of the institutional racism has been eradicated. There is a fear though that progress has benefited a privileged few.A black middle class elite has been created by ANC cronyism and economic success has not been equally shared by the very poor. Tutu wonders whether expectations were set too high before apartheid and drew an analogy with Moses leading his people out of Egypt into the desert for 40 years.
“Tutu wonders whether expectations were set too high before apartheid”Whereas during the struggle for freedom, people supported the cause out of altruism he says, now they are in for what they can get out. “Original sin knows no colour”, he added wryly.Political impropriety has put South Africa in the news for the wrong reasons in the last few months. The probable future President, Jacob Zuma still faces charges of corruption and while he was acquitted of a rape charge in 2006, his statement that he had a shower after having consensual sex with his accuser to avoid contracting HIV drew ridicule from commentators at home and abroad.The AIDS epidemic is still a major concern on Tutu’s mind and the attitudes of South Africa’s politician’s have not always inspired confidence. Thabo Mbeki caused controversy by disputing the causes of the disease and Tutu has also been critical of the intransigence of the Catholic Church in relation to their views on contraception in the face of the problem. He expressed the hope that the new health minister Barbara Hogan would succeed in implementing more progressive new policies with regard to HIV and AIDS.South Africa’s international reputation will depend not just on its own internal progress but also crucially on the role it plays in Zimbabwe. As the largest player in the 15-member South African Development Community, South Africa has considerable influence with its neighbours and the West has been relying on it to pressure Robert Mugabe into accepting change.Thabo Mbeki’s efforts were something of a disappointment. While Morgan Tsvangirai has at last been sworn in as Prime Minister sharing power with the despotic President Mugabe, the deal falls far short of original hopes.While Tutu has been strident in his calls for firm intervention, he was also sympathetic to Mbeki. He pointed out that Mugabe had a better relationship with Nelson Mandela and regarded his successor as something of a young upstart. He also reasoned that Mugabe was previously regarded as one of the more glamorous success stories of African politics. Tutu said on another occasion that if Mugabe had retired ten years ago, he might still be held in high regard.Reiterating that the current deal was the only show in town, Tutu was undoubtedly fearful that things could still fall apart in Zimbabwe. Tsvangirai’s MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) party holds just thirteen of the 31 seats at the cabinet table but crucially it will in future control both the police and the finance ministry though not the Army.South Africa’s role in keeping up the momentum and preventing any backward slide will be vital. Jacob Zuma has moderated his previously pro-Zanu-PF views to become a harsh critic of Zimbabwe and of Thabo Mbeki’s light touch. If he follows through on these words once in power, he could do a lot of good.Tutu’s outlook for South Africa’s future is reassuringly positive. His views are also refreshingly progressive which makes a change from some of his contemporaries both in the clergy and in South African politics.He is quick to emphasise the equal importance of all faiths, Christian and non-Christian in spreading a message of compassion. He argues that faith must be relevant and must speak to the conditions of the people. These are qualities his own preaching has certainly never lacked.South Africa’s struggle with corruption, poverty and AIDS is ongoing but there is no doubting the scale of the achievement which men like Desmond Tutu brought about. His analogy with the student that has done well but has room for improvement is apt and uplifting. As that student’s teacher, Archbishop Tutu deserves a lot of credit.