Beetroot in the Rainbow Nation

Alexia Leckie (South Africa, AC 08-10)

Has hope turned to despair or, at best, to doubt? All round the world, millions of people rejoiced when Nelson Mandela became the first President of a new “Rainbow Nation”. Yet now, after the sudden resignation under strange circumstances of Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, South Africa has a new President, the almost unknown Kgalema Motlanthe. But for how long, nobody knows. Some believe that Motlanthe is just acting as caretaker for the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) controversial and allegedly corrupt leader, Jacob Zuma. Is he President in everything but name until next year’s elections?


These are testing times everywhere. Yet Motlanthe faces a huge challenge if he is to restore South Africa’s damaged international standing and unify its government after a mass walkout in solidarity with the ousted Mbeki. Zuma acted merely as a spectator through all of this: he was not eligible to stand for President because he is not an MP (yet).  


So Motlanthe is regarded as a mere stand-in, and politics abhors uncertainty. That said, Motlanthe has made a good impression in his first week as President. For example, he has fired Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, otherwise and more popularly known as “Dr Beetroot” – thanks to her notorious promotion of garlic and beetroot as remedies for AIDS. It is thought that South Africa has about 5.4 million people who are affected by the AIDS pandemic. Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang have long been criticised at home and abroad for downplaying the scale of this disaster.


So the new President has surprised many and pleased more. There may be more to him that meets the eye. He is, after all, steeped in the traditions of South Africa’s emerging democracy. He was an important figure in the underground military arm of the ANC throughout the era of apartheid. He spent 10 years in jail on infamous Robben Island with Mbeki and Zuma – and, of course, with Mandela. He then became active in the important and influential National Union of Mineworkers and rose steadily to become Secretary- General of the ANC in 1997. But however well Motlanthe does, will Zuma’s superior standing in the ANC, by far South Africa’s dominant political party, see him take over from Motlanthe next year?


Even to the informed observer, what is going on in South Africa seems mysterious. It is a complex, kaleidoscopic situation. But in essence South Africa is trying to achieve in 10 or 15 years what in Britain and America and France took hundreds of years: a stable, vigorous and effective democracy. The current situation in Iraq is another example of how difficult democracy’s birth can be.


One inevitable consequence is opacity. The new President of South Africa is a classic example of democracy’s long shadows. Will Motlanthe survive, let alone thrive? Only time will tell. But the road to stability will be long. We need to trust in the innate optimism of ordinary South Africans and in the inspiration and aegis of Nelson Mandela – which no other African country has. We need to celebrate the astonishing progress South Africa has made, rather than bemoan the shortcomings of its young democracy. Whether his time in office proves to be short or long, South Africa needs our encouragement, not our censure, of its new President.

– United World College Student Magazine –


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