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With Zuma a shoo-in, South Africa worries

Jacob Zuma, who is expected to win the presidency in Wednesday elections, has populist appeal, but many wonder if the rough-hewn figure dogged by corruption allegations can provide steady leadership.

April 22, 2009|Robyn Dixon

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — When South Africa's chunky, bespectacled president-in-waiting, Jacob Zuma, gyrates onstage, stamping his feet and shaking his tail feather, his fans go wild.

But five minutes later, he delivers a deadening, wooden speech that leaves the crowd of African National Congress supporters fidgeting and talking among themselves.

As Zuma leads his ANC into the election today, the big question is not whether the party will win (it will), nor even the margin of victory. It's what kind of president Zuma will be -- a question that South Africans find surprisingly hard to answer.

"My greatest fear about Zuma is not that there is going to be a sudden ideological lurch or that the populist left will seize control of the agenda," said author Alec Russell, "but just that there will be a vacuum of leadership, and that he won't have the rigor and strength to lead the ANC and South Africa."

Russell, who wrote "Bring Me My Machine Gun," a study of the ANC after apartheid, said Zuma is perceived in the party as weaker than former President Nelson Mandela or his successor, Thabo Mbeki.

After 15 years in power, the inspiring liberation movement that fought apartheid and brought Mandela to power has settled into flabby middle age. The ANC government, says Russell, is in danger of ossifying.

Delivery of services has been poor -- one reason its campaign posters for "Better Health," "Better Education" and "More Jobs" look more like opposition promises than planks in the ruling-party platform.

On the opposition side, the Congress of the People, which split from the ANC late last year, is predicted by an opinion poll to get about 9% of the vote, and the Democratic Alliance is expected to get around 11%. With its history as the liberation party, the ANC is predicted to win almost 65%.

His victory certain, Zuma will take power at a difficult time: The sharply declining economy will leave his government little wiggle room for grand new programs on poverty, education or health.

Even during the commodities boom, South Africa fell shy of the 6% growth needed to cut the country's unemployment rate, which runs about 40%. But global demand for South African commodities has collapsed, manufacturers are laying off thousands of workers and business confidence is down.

When the global economic downturn hit, investors fled, draining billions of dollars out of the economy almost overnight.

As the "Proudly South African" slogans of the "Rainbow Nation" grow stale, even staunch ANC supporters such as Doris Ltelalo, 64, are angry and skeptical.

The Soweto shack dweller sells cookies for a living. She pulls out a newspaper and jabs an angry finger at a photo of a local ANC municipal council member, Zodwa Mfenyana, condemning the ANC's failure to help the poor.

Yet she'll still vote ANC, because "I'll always be ANC."

Lodrick Lekhulane, 29, an unemployed man who's lived in a smoke-stained Soweto shack for 15 years, is confused about what Zuma will bring and unsure whom to vote for. But he sees no point in swimming against a tidal wave.

"There are many people who want him, so it's useless to vote for another party," he says.

The poorly educated, unemployed young men who make up a large swath of Zuma's support expect him to deliver jobs, houses, services and a share of South Africa's wealth.

"I believe he will do that," says Thomas Ngobeni, 38, an unemployed man sitting in the sun in a narrow alley in Alexandra township.

But many liberals fear a Zuma presidency after his hints about a revival of the death penalty, his veiled threats to take on the judiciary and news media, and even his comment that Afrikaners are the only "true" white South Africans.

Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, who once urged Zuma to abandon his presidential ambition for the sake of the country, recently voiced those doubts.

"At the present time, I can't pretend to be looking forward to having him as my president," he said at a book launch this month.

"The ANC has certainly lost the intellectuals," Russell said. "There's no longer anyone who's arguing convincingly that the ANC is a great party. The intellectuals are casting around -- and that's [intellectuals] of all races. There's a sense that a rougher, tougher crowd has taken over."

The Zuma faction's willingness to jostle South Africa's still-fragile democratic institutions is one reason for disquiet. During Zuma's long battle to evade charges of corruption and fraud, supporters attacked the judiciary, threatened to "kill for Zuma," and accused the country's criminal justice organs of conspiring to keep him from power.

Zuma's charges collapsed two weeks ago after his lawyers produced secret intelligence tapes showing the former head of the anti-corruption unit, Leonard McCarthy, discussing the timing of the charges with a former National Prosecuting Authority boss, Bulelani Ngcuka.

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