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Zuma is a mystery in S. Africa

Expectations that he will become president next year are making many uneasy about an unknown agenda.

October 12, 2008|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Jacob Zuma has a problem: He scares some people.

The leader of the ruling African National Congress, now in line to become South Africa's next president, faces unresolved corruption allegations, never tested in court. He has advocated virginity tests, opposed gay marriage and supported reinstating the death penalty.

The country's leading financial journal, the Financial Mail, famously headlined his political rise with the words "Be Afraid." Some analysts say fear that Zuma would run the nation contributed to this year's rise in emigration.

As a result, Zuma has been around the world trying to overcome the fear factor. At home, he has met with white farmers, businessmen, Jews and poor white Afrikaners to put them at ease.

Still, the 66-year-old Zuma's campaign to reassure the world hasn't answered some big questions: What does he stand for? What would he actually do as South African president? His stock answer reveals little of himself. He says he's just part of a collective and stands for the same things as the ANC.

His statements also are not always convincing. For example, he said last month that there was "no fight" between him and former President Thabo Mbeki, that any animosity between them was an invention of journalists.

The comment came the day after his supporters forced Mbeki from office in the most acrimonious crisis the party has faced since it took office in 1994, even bringing it close to splitting in two.


ANC activist

The son of a Durban maid, Zuma had little education. He joined the ANC military wing as a teenager, was arrested and spent 10 years in jail, where he learned to read and where his singing and organization of a choral group raised morale.

After his release, he organized the ANC's intelligence arm. Among his closest supporters are former ANC intelligence operatives and those who ran Operation Vula, the underground movement to smuggle exiled guerrillas back into South Africa.

Zuma, whose many supporters see him as a charming counter to the elite who have run the ANC, is part of an ambitious cadre who clambered up an organization riven by paranoia and internal conspiracies. Zuma's supporters used these old ANC grudges to oust Mbeki as president.

The ANC-dominated parliament then elected Kgalema Motlanthe to be the nation's president in a caretaker position. Zuma, ineligible because he's not in parliament, is expected to take over as president after elections next year.

Analysts say Zuma capitalized on anger among communists, unions and the ANC Youth League over Mbeki's aloof style and failure to improve the lives of the poor. But Mbeki's old enemies in the party, such as businessmen Mathews Phosa, Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale, also played a key role in the president's fall.

Ramaphosa was bested by Mbeki in the rivalry to succeed former President Nelson Mandela. He, Sexwale and Phosa were investigated in 2000 and '01 over an alleged plot to topple Mbeki as president. They were exonerated but they never forgave Mbeki.

The toppling of Mbeki raised questions about Zuma's leadership and ability to exert control. He had repeatedly said Mbeki wouldn't be removed prematurely, and just days before the dismissal likened Mbeki's government to a "dead snake" not worth beating.

"The people who put him where he is, is he a prisoner of them? So far it doesn't look good," said political analyst and author William Gumede.

The ANC took a pro-business approach under Mbeki. Zuma, viewed as an advocate for the poor, has offered few specifics on how he would deliver real change for the impoverished.

"There is no reason for South Africans to be apprehensive," Zuma said at a news conference. "The transition will be managed with care and precision."

But the ANC leadership coup deepened the party split, and some analysts predict a fracture.

Political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki, brother and frequent critic of the former president, said the new leaders in Zuma's camp were a "motley crew," in stark contrast to the educated black elite that always guided the ANC. Mbeki said it was unclear what effect they would have on the ANC: As with pulling a thread in a sweater, you could end up with a big hole, or no sweater at all.

Other analysts said Zuma has shown himself to be a clever strategist. He can be earthy, social and comfortable in his own skin, whether he's wearing traditional Zulu leopard pelt attire, a T-shirt or a suit. He has a reputation as a good listener and mediator.

"There's a certain amount of urban chauvinism in the ANC elite who don't like him because they think he hasn't been through matric [graduated from high school]," political analyst Adam Habib said.


Goodwill tour

Since becoming ANC president last year, Zuma has been to Los Angeles; London; Paris; Davos, Switzerland; and elsewhere, trying to overcome negative perceptions.

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