Zuma joined the ANC in 1959, when he was seventeen, a year after Henrik Verwoerd, the Dutch-born Afrikaner leader who had formulated the ideology of apartheid, became prime minister. Four years later, Zuma was arrested with a group of fifty fellow members of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s military wing, while attempting to cross the border into British-ruled Bechuanaland (now Botswana) for military training. After his conviction for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government, he was given a ten-year prison sentence and shipped to Robben Island, the windswept rock off the coast of Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela would arrive the following year.
Zuma’s years on Robben Island transformed him. He became proficient at reading and writing, and the many veteran political prisoners held there introduced him to the culture and traditions of the ANC. Prison was “where Zuma learned the art of consensus building, of ironing things out until you establish as broad an accord as possible,” I was told by one South African journalist who has studied his career. “That’s how the prisoners dealt with life on Robben Island—and how they dealt with politics after they got out.” In Zuma, one fellow prisoner recalls that Zuma
knew all these stories about Zulu history…. He would start telling a story—about [the chieftain] Shaka…at night in the cell—and then he would have to stop. But he would carry on the next night where he left off. The other prisoners were spellbound.
Released in 1973, Zuma spent the next seventeen years in exile in Swaziland and Mozambique, smuggling weapons, recruiting party activists, and arranging clandestine journeys across the border. In his Mbeki biography, Mark Gevisser describes Zuma as “fearless, loyal and affable…possessed of a canny wit that made him one of the ANC’s most effective operators.” Swaziland is also where he met Mbeki, then the ANC’s operations commander in the country, who taught him how to fire an AK-47 and became his mentor. Zuma became the chief of intelligence of the ANC in exile, compiling valuable information about spies working for the apartheid government who had infiltrated the ANC.
South Africa’s last white president, F.W. de Klerk, released Mandela from prison in February 1990 and opened negotiations with the ANC. Mbeki and Zuma returned from exile and took part in the talks leading to the transition to black rule. In the run-up to South Africa’s 1994 election, clashes broke out between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party, a sometimes collaborationist, Zulu-based political movement, which sought independence or extensive regional autonomy for Zululand. Zuma, who is himself a Zulu, persuaded the Inkatha warriors to put down their weapons in return for a share of political power, a compromise that is considered one of his most important political accomplishments.
During his years as president, Mbeki came to rely on the mediation skills of Zuma, who was named deputy president when Mbeki came to power in 1999. Zuma was given the tasks of ending ethnic killing in Burundi and attempting to bring about peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a decade-long war has claimed several million lives. “On just about every issue, Zuma was the go-to guy,” says Bongani Bingwa, a South African journalist who has followed the careers of the two men. But over time, Mbeki came to distrust Zuma, viewing him as a rival, and in 2001 the deputy president was obliged to issue a public statement denying ambitions to succeed Mbeki as president.
In June 2005, Shabir Shaik, a Durban businessman who had managed Zuma’s financial affairs, was convicted of two counts of corruption and one count of fraud in the so-called Arms Deal Case; he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Court testimony had revealed a complex scheme to deposit cash into Zuma’s bank account on a regular basis, beginning in the mid-1990s, and to pay many of his expenses. In return Zuma allegedly used his influence to secure Shaik a contract to supply submarine weapons in partnership with a French firm, Thomson-SCF, later known as Thint. (The partnership netted Shaik about 30 million rand, worth $5 million at the time.) The judge also found that Shaik had negotiated a 1.5 million rand bribe from Thint for Zuma, in exchange for Zuma’s providing protection from a government probe into the Shaik–Thint relationship.
Some observers argue that Zuma was simply a product of an ANC exile culture that bred a dependence on the benevolence of powerful people: “They were always under suspicion, being jailed, and somebody had to look after the wives and families,” Bongani Bingwa told me. “In his mind he wasn’t doing anything different from what those around him were doing. Nobody can point to a lavish lifestyle that was just out of control. He was just keeping his head above water.” But the evidence of Zuma’s venality was persuasive and —though he wasn’t a defendant in the case—Mbeki forced him to step down as deputy president.
The real victim of Zuma’s firing, however, was Mbeki. The ANC leadership was angered by what they viewed as Mbeki’s high-handed dismissal of Zuma. The fact that Mbeki acted unilaterally reinforced his image as imperious and aloof. Members of the ANC’s Youth Wing; Zulu tribalists; the rank and file in the South African Communist Party and in COSATU, a huge affiliation of twenty-two South African trade unions; officials whom Mbeki had fired; and others who nursed grievances against him—all gathered together in a so-called Coalition of the Wounded, and began a campaign to unseat Mbeki. By April 2006, at the conclusion of Zuma’s rape trial—when gangs calling themselves “Friends of Zuma” gathered in front of the courthouse, burning photographs of the alleged victim—the pro-Zuma coalition had come to dominate the ANC. “They succeeded in arguing that Zuma was the victim of political machinations, and that Mbeki was the head of this conspiracy,” said Matshiqi, the columnist for Business Day.
Mbeki’s positions on AIDS and Zimbabwe further undermined him. His controversial health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, dismissed anti-retroviral drugs as “toxic” and promoted changes of diet as a cure for AIDS. Mbeki himself clung to similar arguments, and blocked the distribution of antiretrovirals as the epidemic spread. In 2002 the South African Supreme Court ordered Mbeki’s government to develop an antiretroviral treatment plan. But the government delayed the accreditation of health care facilities, and prevented doctors from administering effective combinations of drugs. It wasn’t until September 2006, after South Africa was ridiculed for its display of garlic cloves and lemons at an exhibition at an international AIDS conference in Toronto, that the government finally responded. Social Affairs Minister Zola Skweyiya admitted his embarrassment over the Toronto episode, and the cabinet overrode Mbeki’s obstructionism and began to implement an effective AIDS treatment program.
Zuma, like nearly every other top official, kept silent on AIDS for the first half of the decade. As his testimony in his rape trial indicated, he took a casual approach toward the virus, and he, like most members of Mbeki’s government, seemed to have little understanding of how large the problem was. “He wasn’t sensitive to the dimensions of the HIV epidemic. Nobody was paying attention,” I was told by Mark Heywood, the deputy chairperson of the National AIDS Council. “Mbeki created a climate of misinformation.” In November 2008, a Harvard University study concluded that 365,000 people had died prematurely in South Africa as a result of the government’s willful denial of the extent of the AIDS epidemic.
Mbeki’s support for the Mugabe dictatorship in neighboring Zimbabwe under the guise of “quiet diplomacy” was the final blow to his credibility. For years he had turned a blind eye to Mugabe’s abuses. After the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe in the March 2008 election, and Mugabe and his ruling party organized a violent campaign to intimidate opposition supporters, Mbeki refused to intervene. Zuma had already unseated Mbeki as president of the ANC several months earlier, and now, for the first time, he staked out a public position different from Mbeki’s. In stark contrast to Mbeki, Zuma called Zimbabwe’s regime a “police state” and demanded an end to the violence against Tsvangirai supporters. Last April, when a Chinese ship pulled into the port of Durban carrying arms and ammunition for Mugabe’s security forces, Zuma’s supporters in the dock workers’ union refused to allow it to land. It was a telling indication that Zuma’s followers were now strong enough to dictate policy on the ground. Four months later, Mbeki was gone.
In November Zuma was the guest speaker at the Foreign Press Association dinner in Johannesburg. The now unchallenged ANC leader and presumptive president-to-be looked resplendent in a black Mobutu-style jacket, with a silver brocaded collar, as he stood before a crowd of journalists and ANC officials. In recent months and weeks, Zuma has been making similar appearances around the country, selling himself as the new face of South Africa. He has gone door to door in the Karoo Desert, the shantytowns of KwaZulu-Natal, the bush of the Limpopo Valley. He has met with business leaders, including the board of Anglo-American, South Africa’s biggest mining concern, and the US Chamber of Commerce, reassuring them that the ANC’s free-market policies won’t be threatened by a Zuma presidency. (One of the reasons that leaders of the South African Communist Party have backed Zuma is because they believe he’ll roll back the privatization and anti-union policies of the Mbeki years.) In his presidential campaign, Zuma has aimed to show that the tone of the post-Mbeki era will be one of moderation, stability, and continuity.
Indeed, the tone of Zuma’s remarks suggested that he is determined not to shake up the status quo. Asked about the damning Harvard study on AIDS, Zuma toed the party line, insisting that the government has had an effective treatment program in place for years. “The problem was that people confused the president’s own beliefs with our policy,” he said, disingenuously. In contrast to his condemnation of the Mugabe regime back in April, Zuma carefully avoided criticizing the dictator. Referring to the all-but-failed power-sharing deal between Mugabe and Tsvangirai negotiated by Mbeki, Zuma said blandly that “the two leaders must implement the agreement.” He made no mention of the fact that Mugabe and his ruling-party cronies had unilaterally taken over key ministries and posts—including the all-important security ministry—in violation of the spirit of the agreement with Tsvangirai. He even praised Mbeki for doing a “good job” as mediator—a role he had taken on after being forced out as president—even though Mbeki’s months of dialogues with Mugabe have accomplished nothing and Zimbabwe’s misery has dramatically worsened.
For those who had been hoping that Zuma would play a forceful role in the efforts to oust Mugabe, his remarks that evening only confirmed the sense of disappointment. “We had high expectations,” David Coltart, a human rights lawyer and leading opposition member of Zimbabwe’s parliament, told me. “But it appears as if he will not make any dramatic policy changes towards the Mugabe regime.” The same week that Zuma made his remarks, a cholera epidemic was sweeping through Zimbabwe, infecting thousands and killing hundreds. With no functioning hospitals or water purification plants, the failed state was powerless to stop the epidemic from spreading. “Things are absolutely desperate here,” Coltart told me from Bulawayo, the country’s second-largest city.
At the same dinner in Johannesburg, Zuma was also asked about the new political party that had sprung up the previous month, and planned to challenge the ANC in this spring’s election. Called the Congress of the People (COPE), it was founded by several Mbeki loyalists, including South Africa’s former minister of defense, Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota, and the former governor of Gauteng province, Mbhazima Shilowa, who have bolted from the ANC, denouncing its corruption. In the past three presidential elections, the ANC has secured more than two thirds of the popular vote, giving it a working majority in South Africa’s parliament. Some political analysts believe that COPE could significantly dent that majority; it represents the first attempt in many years to draw away black support from the ANC. Zuma indicated that he was open-minded about the ANC’s new challenge and flashed an enigmatic smile. “South Africans must be allowed to explore things, to see what they can do,” he said. “It’s a test of the strength and the maturity of our democracy.”
That is not the view of many in the ANC, whose spokespeople have accused the breakaway faction of disloyalty and insolence. Days before Zuma’s appearance the party filed a nuisance suit against COPE, claiming that the ANC owned the rights to the name. Over the last weeks, young men wearing Jacob Zuma T-shirts have reportedly broken up COPE meetings in KwaZulu-Natal and other South African provinces. “The ANC must just leave us alone and focus on their own work because we don’t want violence,” one COPE official said, in advance of the party launch in Bloemfontein in mid-December. “They are…always provoking us.”
With between four and six months to go before the South African election, another overwhelming ANC victory is widely expected. During the last few weeks, however, Zuma’s own position has begun to appear less certain. In September 2008, Judge Chris Nicholson of the Pietermaritzburg High Court had ruled that the corruption charges against Zuma were unlawful on procedural grounds, and insinuated that the case against him had been tainted by political interference. (Nicholson’s implication that Mbeki had manipulated the prosecution led directly to Mbeki’s being fired by the ANC’s National Executive Committee.) The government immediately appealed the decision, and on January 12, South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that Judge Nicholson had wrongly dismissed the charges, clearing the way for the case to be reinstated. The ANC said that the appellate ruling will not affect Zuma’s candidacy, noting that it “does not make any pronouncements on the merits of the charges.” Moreover, the case, which could still be subject to an appeal by the ANC to the Constitutional Court, South Africa’s highest court, is not likely go to trial before next year.
According to Wim Trengove, a member of the prosecution team, the evidence against Zuma is devastating, including detailed records of deposits made into his accounts by Shaik, and proof of a “series of interventions by Zuma for Shaik’s benefit.” Trengove says that he is confident that Zuma will be convicted if the case finally makes its way to the courtroom. He believes that the selection of Motlanthe—a venerable, nonconfrontational figure whose nickname, Mkhuluwa, translates as Elder One—as interim president may be a sign that the ANC needs a way out if the heat on Zuma grows too intense.
Nobody is suggesting that Zuma will be pushed aside before the general election: he’s far too popular with the masses for the ANC to risk such a potentially inflammatory move. But the ANC could theoretically bypass Zuma once the votes are in and appoint somebody else, such as Motlanthe, to serve as president. (South African voters choose a party, not individual candidates, in the national election, and the party then doles out parliamentary seats and executive posts from that list in proportion to its share of votes. Zuma, who is ranked first on the ANC’s list, would in normal circumstances be elevated to the presidency.) With the prospect of an embarrassing trial complicating Zuma’s future, this is an option that Trengove and others believe the ANC must be weighing seriously. “They must realize,” Trengove told me, “that they shouldn’t have a man sitting in the dock as president.”
—January 14, 2009