South African election - Great nation at another cross roads

AT lunchtime today, if the weekend reports are correct, Paul O’Connell of Young Munster, Munster and Ireland will be named captain of the British and Irish Lions to tour South Africa this summer.

He and the 35 other players, their backroom team and the tens of thousands of supporters who will travel to support them, will visit a country unrecognisable to the one visited 35 years ago by an earlier Lions team captained by another fearsome Irish second row — Willie John McBride.

In 1974, South Africa was still a divided and nasty country. The majority population were treated like third-class citizens and kept in poverty and uneducated servitude. The minority white government used force to maintain the status quo. Dissent was not tolerated, even the movement of the non-white population was restricted by the hated Pass Laws.

So bitterly divided was the country that the loudest Lions supporters were the black South Africans corralled behind the goalposts at each game. They cheered not so much to support McBride’s Lions but to defy Premier Balthazar Vorster’s racist government.

At that time it was unimaginable that South Africa would have a black president much less that he — Nelson Mandela — would wear a Springbok jersey and inspire the Springboks to win the 1995 World Cup.

And yet, despite those great advances, South Africa seems to be at another crossroads today. The population of that beautiful country go to the polls tomorrow. It seems inevitable that ANC candidate Jacob Zuma will succeed Thabo Mbeki as that Republic’s President.

Mr Zuma is a “colourful” character.

Mr Zuma was endorsed by Nelson Mandela — who will be 91 in July — at what was flagged as his final appearance at a political rally in Ellis Park in Johannesburg. Ironically enough, the scene of that great moment in 1995 when he wore Francois Pienaar’s Springbok jersey at the World Cup final.

Mandela’s support was not constrained by the fact that three years ago Mr Zuma was acquitted of rape charges. Two weeks ago the attorney general’s office dropped the last 14 outstanding charges of fraud, racketeering and corruption against the candidate, eliminating the last obstacle to his coronation.

More of Mr Zuma’s habits — four wives, 20 children — suggest that he may be the post-colonial African leader straight from central casting.

South Africa faces huge problems, crime-ravaged cities, a reeling economy and an ongoing Aids crisis. Unemployment among young blacks is hovering around 50%. Their economy, like ours, is faltering and their infrastructure is crumbling. Power cuts last year paralysed the country’s vital gold mines.

We have a small part to play in this story. Ireland’s bilateral programme to South Africa runs for another three years and last year Irish Aid spent €11.4 million on three programmes, especially water and sanitation services in Limpopo and tackling HIV/Aids.

South Africa was to be the example that the rest of post-colonial Africa might model itself on but the fear is that under Zuma, South Africa will be modelled on other African countries, that it might in time become a Greater Zimbabwe. Of course these concerns may be based on stereotypes but the evidence at least demands consideration. Let us hope we are wrong and that Mr Zuma can confront South Africa’s challenges and be an example for the region. Let us hope too that Paul O’Connell’s Lions are as successful as Willie John’s.

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