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South Africa's continental footprint

Incoming president Jacob Zuma must improve the record of his predecessor in spreading democracy and prosperity in Africa.

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Jacob Zuma, who will be formally elected president of South Africa by the parliament on Wednesday, is a larger-than-life figure. Will he have a "big man" effect on the rest of Africa in the traditional, imposing sense, or will he use his outsized persona to help spread democracy, peace, and prosperity on a continent that needs all three?

In his victory speech April 26, Mr. Zuma pledged that South Africa – the continent's largest economy – would continue to play a key role in international affairs. It must do better, however, than it has in the 15 years since nonwhite South Africans won universal suffrage.

Since that time, the country's influence on Africa as a whole has been mixed. One welcomed ripple effect came from its Truth and Reconciliation Commission – the courtlike setting that allowed victims of violence during apartheid to be heard, and perpetrators to testify and request amnesty.

The commission reflected Nelson Mandela's powerful policy of postapartheid forgiveness. While it met criticism, it has also served as a model for several African nations to clear the air after protracted conflict.

Zuma, however, doesn't have the same moral authority as Mr. Mandela – even if he shares Mandela's credentials as a prominent anti-apartheid activist and prisoner on Robben Island. A cloud of personal and political scandal trails this former goat herder. Will the debris follow him onto the African diplomatic stage, obscuring his leadership?


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