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ANC leader keeps S. Africans guessing

Jacob Zuma's penchant for being secretive stirs unease among many, who are unclear as to what he stands for.

December 20, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

POLOKWANE, SOUTH AFRICA — When 44 million South Africans woke up Wednesday to news that a few thousand ruling party delegates had chosen the country's likely next president, some were exultant and others were positively alarmed.

But to many, Jacob Zuma remains an enigma.

Zuma has a reputation for offering vague populist slogans in place of substantive policies and for ducking reporters' questions with a diplomatic smile.

He did nothing to dispel that notion the day after he was chosen as leader of the African National Congress. He canceled a news conference and refused to answer questions while smiling and waving at cameras and journalists outside a lounge at the University of Limpopo.

The 65-year-old Zuma, who led the ANC's intelligence gathering activities in its exile period during apartheid, is known as one of the most secretive politicians in the ruling party.

But analysts predict the policy that served him well in his political rise has outlived its usefulness because of unease among investors and many South Africans as to what he stands for.

Mark Gevisser, author of a biography of South African President Thabo Mbeki, said: "I think working clandestinely is as much a feature of Jacob Zuma's approach as it is of Thabo Mbeki's.

"I think he's a very secretive politician," Gevisser said. "I have yet to see a substantial interview with Jacob Zuma where he talks about himself or his ideas."

So little is known about Zuma that it is unclear how many wives and children he has.

"I think he lacks moral fiber. He's a somewhat dubious character," said Gillian Gardaer, 36, a university lecturer in Johannesburg, speaking in a private capacity.

"I certainly don't see him as the kind of leader I would want to have as the leader of a country."

Gardaer, a member of the Colored, or mixed race, community, said it was difficult to know what Zuma's policies would be.

"I don't know what Jacob Zuma's position is on things, where he stands," Gardaer said. "He's an elusive sort of character."

The value of South Africa's currency, the rand, remained steady Wednesday, but in the lead-up to the ANC vote, uncertainties about Zuma had led one reputable weekly magazine, the Financial Mail, to publish a photograph of him with the accompanying words: "Be Afraid."

The only thing standing in the way of Zuma becoming the president of South Africa when Mbeki steps down in 2009 is the possibility of his being charged with corruption and tax evasion. If convicted, his ambition to be the nation's leader would be dashed.

Disquiet over Zuma is strongest among middle-income and wealthy South Africans, who were alarmed by comments during his rape trial last year, a case in which he was acquitted. He said that his accuser's short skirt indicated she wanted sex, and that taking a shower afterward helped protect him from AIDS. He used no condom.

But despite his reputation for making dubious, controversial comments, he remains popular among the masses, who pin their hopes for a better life on him.

"Hopefully, there will be more job opportunities and we will be improved economically," said Kennedy Moorthai, a 23-year-old student in Mafikeng, 150 miles west of Johannesburg, speaking in a phone interview.

Zuma's ability to overcome the odds goes back a long way. Born in rural KwaZulu-Natal province, he herded cattle in his youth and had almost no formal education.

His father, a police officer, died when Zuma was young and he had to take odd jobs from an early age to help his mother, a domestic worker. He joined the ANC in 1958 as a teenager and went into the military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, but was arrested for plotting to overthrow the government.

He spent a decade on Robben Island, where other members of the liberation movement, including Nelson Mandela, were imprisoned.

Fellow prisoners recount that the young Zulu activist was an enthusiastic choral singer and dancer. He also gained education at the informal school run by the prisoners.

After his release, he went into exile in Swaziland, where he met Mbeki, who had been trained in Moscow. According to Gevisser, the biographer, Mbeki taught Zuma how to fire a gun.

The two remained close for many years but had a falling-out after Mbeki became president. Mbeki sacked Zuma as South Africa's vice president over corruption allegations in 2005.

Gevisser believes Mbeki, 65, was long wary of Zuma's ability to command votes in the ANC. Mbeki apparently came to trust Zuma less and less, shutting him out once Mbeki became president.

Lebogang Montjane, 37, a manager of a retail chain, expressed fears that South Africa's reputation might be at risk under the traditionalist Zuma.

"I think [Mbeki] was a modern African leader," Montjane said. "South Africa has projected an image of itself as a modern African state.

"If [Zuma] becomes leader, would South Africa still be able to project itself as a modern African state? That's a question for me about Zuma."

Gardaer also sees Zuma as someone with a lot to prove. "He has not convinced me of his ability to make important decisions globally or even locally."

--

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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