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Jacob Zuma, South Africa's unsavory next president

The ANC leader appeals to the common man in South Africa, but he has been dogged by professional and personal battles.

April 19, 2009|Mark Gevisser | Mark Gevisser is writer in residence at the University of Pretoria and the author of "A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream."

Campaigning in his KwaZulu-Natal heartland last week, Jacob Zuma took aim at one of his sharpest critics, the Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The cleric had "strayed" from his pastoral responsibilities by criticizing him, said Zuma, who has battled charges of fraud and racketeering for most of the last decade. "As far as I know," Zuma said, "the role of priests is to pray for the souls of sinners, not condemn them."

The comment, coming from the man who is destined to become South Africa's next president, marks a watershed in South African politics, for it is an admission by Zuma himself that the nation's leaders can no longer be expected to cast themselves in the high-minded mold of Nelson Mandela.

Zuma, the African National Congress candidate for president in Wednesday's elections, was responding to comments by Tutu that he was unsuitable for the presidency. Along with many other South Africans, Tutu believes the ANC leader has been irrevocably compromised by the charges against him, even though they were finally dropped this month amid findings that the chief investigator had abused the prosecutorial process.

Zuma insists he was the victim of a political conspiracy masterminded by his predecessor and rival, former South African President Thabo Mbeki. But at the very least, Zuma was shown to have lived for a decade off the largesse of a benefactor who served time in jail for having solicited a bribe on his behalf.

And then there were the rape charges. In 2006, in a separate case, Zuma was acquitted of rape. But many South Africans believe his admission that he had unprotected sex with an unstable HIV-positive woman who regarded him as a "father" revealed terrible judgment. Zuma claimed that he inoculated himself against infection with a postcoital shower.

With all of this baggage, not to mention the fact that he has no education and his finances and personal life are in perpetual shambles (he is a polygamist with several wives and some 20 children), Zuma would seem ill-suited to the presidency of Africa's most sophisticated state and its flagship democracy.

And yet he is likely to win Wednesday's elections with a significant majority (probably more than 60%) and has become a figure of cult popularity, particularly among the poor.

Zuma's popularity rests on several foundations. First, the century-old ANC remains "home" to most black South Africans, and moving away from it would be tantamount to abandoning their family. Second, Zuma's flawed humanity appeals greatly to ordinary people. A man of humble rural origin, he has struggled through life and has styled himself as the purveyor of common home truths rather than the high-minded intellectualisms of his aloof predecessor.

Perhaps his strongest asset, though, is a growing discontent. Despite a significant increase in the delivery of services in the 15 years since the ANC came to power, most South Africans remain desperately poor and feel excluded from the banquet of victory at which a small black elite now sups.

Zuma is perceived to have been ejected from this elite by Mbeki and his cronies because he was not sophisticated or educated or slick enough.

Voters relate to his victimhood, and they admire his ability to overcome it.

Zuma has certainly proved himself a remarkably resilient politician, even if he has earned the reputation of being all things to all people, telling shop-floor audiences one thing and their bosses another, with little indication of a coherent vision. His candidacy is dependent on the active sponsorship of the left, particularly South Africa's powerful labor movement, and it remains to be seen whether he will be able to steer the middle ground between his supporters' socialist agendas and the imperatives of the market.

But there are indications that while he will not tamper much with the economic orthodoxies established by his predecessor, he might provoke a return to conservative patriarchy at odds with the liberal democratic values of the Mandela-era ANC. He has often articulated a social conservatism about matters such as teenage pregnancy and homosexuality, and he has urged faith communities to challenge those interpretations of the constitution -- such as the right to abortion -- with which they are uncomfortable.

In crime-ridden South Africa, he talks tough, certainly, but in a way that suggests the easy solutions of vigilantism. He once suggested that murder and rape suspects should forfeit their rights. Recently, he suggested too that he would overlook the highly regarded deputy chief justice, Dikgang Moseneke, for promotion because Moseneke once made a statement that he owed his allegiance to the people rather than to the ANC.

Under Mbeki and now under Zuma, the ANC has confused party and state to such an extent that South Africa has become a de facto one-party state. The ruling party has become seduced by its own liberation mythologies, and it has developed an unduly proprietary sense of ownership over South Africa's destiny. (Zuma likes to talk about how it will rule until the messiah's coming). Flowing out of this is a system of patronage and kickback politics that undermines the very "developmental state" it promises to establish.

For this reason, many life-long ANC supporters, myself included, will be voting for the opposition for the first time when we go to the polls Wednesday.

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