The resignation of a political leader marks a beginning as well as an end. So it is with the announcement by Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's President, that he is stepping down. After an interim period sure to be marked by uncertainty, Mbeki is likely to be succeeded by his former deputy and sometime foe Jacob Zuma, a populist who has faced corruption and rape charges in the past few years allegations he has always denied and which his supporters have claimed were politically motivated. A recent court ruling that state prosecutors ignored proper legal procedure gave that claim some validity.
But even if Zuma (pictured above) succeeds in providing stability while fulfilling promises to his leftist supporters, the status of the African National Congress (ANC) party, once the continent's most respected organ of national liberation, has been irreversibly diminished by the infighting of the past few years. Under Nelson Mandela, the ANC peerlessly wielded its moral authority. But that trait also encouraged leaders to think they were above reproach, an attitude that found its fullest expression in Mbeki, who often acted as if he had no reason to explain himself and simply asked people to take his decisions on trust. That trust wilted, thanks to ANC scandals over corruption, incompetence and abuse of power. The party is in no danger of losing power. But the days when it commanded widespread respect and spoke with purpose and clarity are long gone. After Mbeki's resignation, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu alongside Mandela, the country's principal voice of conscience said he was "deeply disturbed" at the way in which recent events showed that the nation "has been subordinated to a political party." Tutu noted, however, that "even the most powerful parties bite the dust at some point." The ANC will always claim an honored place in the history of South Africa, and of its people's fight for freedom. But Tutu's comments reveal a nation impatient for its ruling party to mature into something more appropriate for a continent's leading democracy.