Jacob Zuma
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.


AP Images

African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, and Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi at a Heritage Day celebration in Stanger, KwaZulu-Natal, September 24, 2008

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

This Issue

February 12, 2009