Simon Barber
Simon Barber

OK, doctor, how are you going to spin this?

These are interesting times for those of us in the business of explaining South Africa to rest of the world.

Here’s what our current politics look like to someone who reads the Washington Post or the New York Times and listens to National Public Radio (that would be your high-end United States news consumer): The party of Nelson Mandela is about to choose as its leader, and presumably as the next president of the country, Jacob Zuma, whose campaign song is Bring Me My Machine Gun, whose advice on HIV-avoidance is “take a shower”, and whose good friend and financial backer is in jail for soliciting money from people who wished to be in Zuma’s good graces when he was deputy president of the country.

Of course, this may be a terribly unfair characterisation. And so indeed the explainers will have to declare should the results of the voting by ANC provincial branches turn out to be fully predictive. In the meantime the message has to be that panic is not in order. South Africans and their politics have a way of getting to the precipice, looking over it and finding a way not to jump.

What is going on here, one says, is a family feud. These are the bitterest kind, and generally the most impenetrable to outsiders. However, the family in this case is a decent one. It has a lot of good people in it and if the past is prologue they will resolve things in a productive way.

How, one is asked? Well, here’s one scenario. The provincial vote shows there to be a strong groundswell of opinion within the party that Thabo Mbeki should not have a third term as ANC president. It does not say quite as much about the durability of Zuma’s support were Mbeki to leave the race. That would open the door for compromise on a more easily explainable winner.

The capacity for creative problem solving is an important facet of the South African brand.