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Will He Rule South Africa?

Jacob Zuma; drawing by Pancho

In November, I paid a visit to the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, where ninety-year-old Madiba— as Mandela is affectionately known in South Africa—was making a rare public appearance. The gathering brought together leading figures from the African National Congress, the ruling party in South Africa, including the surviving defendants of the 1963–1964 Rivonia treason trial, at which Mandela and seven other ANC leaders were sentenced to life in prison. Also attending was George Bizos, the anti-apartheid activist and attorney who defended Mandela in the trial, and Nicky Oppenheimer, son of the late chairman of the Anglo-American Corporation, who had chosen the year of Madiba’s ninetieth birthday to donate to the state the trial documents his father had acquired from the state prosecutor two decades earlier. (The occasion also marked the handover to the foundation of the interview tapes that Mandela had made with Richard Stengel, his ghostwriter on Long Walk to Freedom.)

Mandela himself—frail, mostly deaf, his memory fading—arrived midway through the ceremony. He waved at people in the audience whom he recognized, flashed his radiant smile, made small talk with his old friends on the stage with him, and listened to a tape recording of his eloquent speech of defiance in the dock. As he tottered off after thirty minutes, leaning on the arm of a young assistant, many people in the audience seemed visibly moved.

Mandela’s appearance came at a difficult time in South Africa’s—and the ANC’s—history. The ANC has split into two parties, with one side uniting behind Jacob Zuma, who was chosen to take over the ANC’s leadership at a fractious convention in Polokwane in December 2007 and will almost certainly be South Africa’s next leader. The other side consists mostly of supporters of Thabo Mbeki, who resigned as president of South Africa in September 2008. (Mandela praised Zuma at the time he was selected, saying, “Our experience of Comrade Zuma is of a person and leader who is inclusive in his approach, a unifier and one who values reconciliation and collective leadership.”)

As the ANC’s breakup suggests, the sense of cohesiveness and national purpose that Mandela fostered during his five years in power, between 1994 and 1999, has dissipated; the continent’s richest and most powerful country has begun to run into trouble. Crime is spreading, growth is slowing, and the rand has lost 40 percent of its value against the dollar in recent months. Neighboring Zimbabwe has collapsed; a wave of killings of foreigners, including refugees from Zimbabwe, took place in townships around Johannesburg last spring. There is, I was told, grumbling among the poor that the ANC has failed to deliver on many of its promises.

Earlier that week, I visited my former housekeeper, Zongeswa Bauli, at the Kanana squatter camp near Cape Town Airport, a sea of wooden shacks that straddle a fetid canal. (I lived in Cape Town for two years as a Newsweek correspondent earlier this decade.) “I’m not going to vote next year,” she told me, referring to the presidential election that will occur sometime later this spring, as we sat at the rickety table in the three-room hovel that she shared with her eight-year-old daughter and an older sister. Despite the ANC-led government’s frequent promises to replace the shantytown with permanent housing—part of its “No Shacks 2010” pledge, timed with the coming of the soccer World Cup to South Africa—nothing has been built. “The ANC,” Bauli told me, “has let us down.” (The ANC’s spokesperson, Jesse Duarte, told me that the government has built 2.8 million houses since 1994, but that the pace of construction has not been able to keep up with urban migration and population growth. The no-shacks pledge, she said, “is something we must work for.”)

It was probably inevitable that divisions within the ANC, the party of liberation, would open fifteen years after the transition to black rule. But the rancor of the past few months has gone beyond what most South Africans expected a year ago. In September, the ANC’s National Executive Council “recalled”—fired—Mbeki, Mandela’s successor as president, one year before the end of his term. Mbeki had presided over nine years of economic growth, established a safety net for the poor, and helped create a sizable black middle class—amounting to perhaps 10 percent of the black population. But Mbeki’s tenure was tarnished by a reputation for arrogance and aloofness, and by two grievous failures. He had kept silent in the face of human rights abuses carried out by Robert Mugabe’s neighboring dictatorship, and he had for years supported AIDS “denialists” who insisted that the human immunodeficiency virus doesn’t cause the disease.

Those two failures significantly diminished South Africa’s stature as a progressive force on a continent filled with collapsed states and corrupt dictatorships, and mired in the AIDS epidemic. After Mbeki’s dismissal, a veteran ANC politician, Kgalema Motlanthe, was appointed to serve as interim president until the 2009 elections. It is widely expected that Zuma, the current leader of the ANC, will be chosen as the country’s third post-apartheid leader this spring.

Zuma represents a break from the past. All previous leaders of the ANC—Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu—have come from the educated black middle class. Zuma, by contrast, was born and raised in a poor village in rural KwaZulu- Natal and had no formal education before his imprisonment on Robben Island in 1963. On the island, political prisoners organized themselves into study groups and held discussions, mostly about ANC goals, in communal cells; many of them also worked in the evenings toward secondary school or university degrees. Zuma’s impoverished background appeals to the ANC’s rank and file, who never warmed up to the urbane, British-educated Mbeki. “He’s got the common touch, and he can connect with ordinary people in a way that Mbeki never could,” says Aubrey Matshiqi, a political analyst and columnist for Business Day, a Johannesburg newspaper. Mark Gevisser, the author of a biography of Mbeki that will be published this spring,1 told me that “Zuma is a member of the ANC inner circle. But he can go home and slaughter a cow. He is seen by the masses as somebody who knows where he comes from.”

But Zuma’s rise to power has divided South Africa—even though Mandela has endorsed him as a unifier. While recognized as a skilled politician who is as at ease with mining executives in Johannesburg as he is with herders in KwaZulu-Natal, he has been dogged by questions about his judgment and his character. Zuma stands accused of accepting as much as $500,000 in bribes over a decade-long period, beginning in the mid-1990s, to help secure lucrative arms contracts for his longtime financial adviser. In 2005, Zuma was charged with raping the HIV-positive daughter of a fellow former inmate on Robben Island; Zuma claimed the act was consensual, and during the trial he made the notorious comment that he had protected himself against the virus by taking a shower after sex. Zuma was acquitted, but the stigma lingers.

In the Kanana squatter camp, I asked a group of women at a fast-food restaurant what they thought of Zuma, and they responded with expressions of disgust. “He is a rapist,” said one. Zuma is a polygamist with four wives and about twenty children. He is seen by many middle-class South Africans as distastefully out of step with contemporary values.

Moreover, Zuma has frightened both white South Africans and members of the black middle class by embracing some of the most radical elements of the African National Congress. Among them is Julius Malema, the president of the ANC Youth League, who in October told a crowd that he and other Zuma supporters were “prepared to lay down [our] lives and to shoot and kill” for him. “There’s this thuggish thing about him,” I was told by a South African journalist who has watched Zuma over the years. Some of the Youth League members are organized in informal militias. “Whites don’t like the fact that these young men in khaki uniforms turn out waving carved wooden AK-47s every time there’s a court case.” Wim Trengove, a member of the prosecution in Zuma’s long-delayed corruption trial, calls him “a very charis- matic, popular man, but deeply flawed.” If the ANC was hoping to unite the country behind a new leader and restore South Africa’s position as the most influential player on the continent, there is rising fear that it may be doing the opposite.

One afternoon in Johannesburg I saw Zuma at a “Defend the ANC” rally and question-and-answer session at the Monte Casino, a gambling and shopping arcade set in a faux Tuscan village on the outskirts of the city. I walked across cobblestone piazzas lined with boutiques and candy shops, past fountains and fake Renaissance-era clock towers. Young women wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with political slogans—ANC: REGISTER TO VOTE, PROTECT YOUR FUTURE—checked names against a list in the lobby of a multiplex. I fell into a conversation with a twenty-six-year-old hip-hop artist; he was looking forward to the opportunity to speak to Zuma directly about ANC policy toward the arts. “Thabo Mbeki would never have done this,” he told me.

I followed the five hundred participants, including writers, musicians, and artists, into a cavernous movie theater. Zuma—a short, compactly built man, with thick, black-framed glasses—took a seat at a table on the stage, next to the ANC Youth League’s Malema. (Zuma has never distanced himself from Malema’s militant remarks, though ANC spokesperson Jesse Duarte told me that “the leadership talked to Malema and said, ‘we don’t want this kind of language used.’”) Zuma led the crowd in spirited chants of Amandla, Awethu! (power to the people), the ANC’s rallying cry.

Moments later, a commotion broke out in the back of the room. A dozen young men wearing traditional Zulu warrior costumes—leopard-skin loincloths, horsehair armbands, cowry shell–studded neckplates, and beaded headdresses—paraded down the aisle, brandishing long, oval-shaped shields and spears. Some members of the audience—a cross-section of the country’s growing black middle class, who had come to talk about copyright law and national health insurance—watched the procession with unease, but Zuma broke into a grin, and clapped his hands in delight. The twenty-six-year-old musician, who had taken a seat next to me, looked on approvingly. Although the musician was from the Xhosa tribe, South Africa’s second-largest ethnic group and the Zulus’ traditional rival for political power, he told me that he could appreciate Zuma’s affinity for such displays of African tradition. “We like him because he is proud of his tribal roots,” the man said.

Zuma was born in 1942 in Nkandla, in rural KwaZulu-Natal, the son of a policeman and his second wife, who worked as a domestic servant. (He often refers to himself as “a herd boy from Nkandla.”) According to an account that Zuma gave to Jeremy Gordin, a South African journalist and author of a new biography, Zuma,2 he was influenced as a child both by the exploits of Bhambatha, a Zulu warrior who rebelled against British rule in the early twentieth century, and by his father’s eldest son—Zuma’s half-brother—a trade unionist and ANC activist after World War II.

  1. 1

    A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan on March 31, 2009.

  2. 2

    Zuma: A Biography (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2008).

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