South African President Jacob Zuma is under vitriolic attack from within… (AFP/Getty Images )
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Political analyst Mark Gevisser described South African President Jacob Zuma's term in one word: "Disastrous."
He's "the worst leader the ANC has ever had. He's a lost cause. He merely fights to save his own skin and to stay out of jail," another analyst, Justice Malala, wrote in October.
The South African president is under such vitriolic attack within and without his African National Congress party that the Communist Party in his home province called for a law to protect his "dignity" and restrain his critics.
The ANC, a century-old party that defeated apartheid, transformed South Africa and gave the world Nelson Mandela, is paralyzed by a to-the-death leadership fight that will decide Zuma's future at a party vote this month.
The ANC once held itself above other African freedom fighters who metamorphosed from liberators to exploiters. But Zuma's critics say the party has begun to resemble them. Dogged by corruption scandals, it has become a web of patronage for powerful insiders who cheat on government contracts and use law enforcement agencies to taint their political enemies, according to analysts.
Zuma's scandalous $30-million, government-paid renovations to his sprawling private residence in Nkandla (a controversy known locally as Nkandlagate) have so damaged him in the ANC leadership contest that one loyal minister said critics of the expenditures didn't understand African values and lifestyles. The president's spokesman, Mac Maharaj, said the opposition's references to the walled presidential residence as a compound were racist.
"Racism? Is this what the ANC has been reduced to?" wrote analyst Malala in response. "When looting takes place in front of our eyes, the only argument the presidential spokesman can make is that this is racism?"
The government said the renovations were done to upgrade security, citing an apartheid-era law classifying Zuma's private home as a "national key point" covered by security legislation and, as a result, not subject to public scrutiny.
Zuma is also under attack for his current defiance of a Supreme Court order that his lawyers hand over secret intelligence tapes that led prosecutors to drop about 700 corruption and fraud charges against him just weeks before 2009 elections.
Unease over his leadership within the ANC and among the public has deepened since strikes that resulted in 34 protesting miners being killed by police in August.
Zuma also came under criticism when authorities failed to distribute textbooks in Limpopo province until well past the midway mark of the school year. Education activists had to go to court to force the government to distribute the books.
Zuma has always been a controversial leader. He was accused of rape in 2005 by the daughter of a senior ANC colleague; he was acquitted in 2006. Corruption charges, dropped in 2009, continue to hover in the background, with the possibility that if his enemies succeed in ousting him in December — or sometime in the future — he could be put back on trial.
Zuma has compared the ANC to Jesus, and he once told supporters at a rally that in his youth, he would have knocked down any gay men he met.
The illiterate son of a poor Durban housemaid, Zuma rose through the party ranks to join its military wing during the armed struggle against apartheid. He was arrested on conspiracy charges and jailed for 10 years in 1963. He served his term with leaders such as Mandela on Robben Island, where he learned to read.
During his rise to party leader in 2007, his trademark song was "Bring Me My Machine Gun." As president, he reads prepared texts woodenly but projects more warmth and charisma than his aloof and cool predecessor, Thabo Mbeki.
Yet Zuma hasn't been able to translate that warmer personality into mass popularity: Antigovernment protests in South Africa over lack of services or evictions occur almost daily.
Presidents here aren't elected by the people, but by the members of Parliament who belong to the majority party. In the ANC, the presidency is decided by about 4,500 branch party delegates who gather every five years to elect a leader, who is then rubber-stamped as president by ANC lawmakers.
Economic analyst Azar Jammine says seven more years of Zuma as president would damage South Africa's economy, already rattled by the miner strikes, which cut gold and platinum production and growth. South Africa's debt and currency ratings were recently downgraded by Standard & Poor's and Moody's, with both agencies citing poor leadership.
Another Zuma term "would imply another five years of suboptimal performance, muddling along," Jammine said. "He is unable to choose which way to go. He'd rather keep the peace than decide what to do."
"He's been a disastrous president because he has not exhibited either the managerial or the political capacity to govern decisively," Gevisser, an Open Society fellow based in Paris, said during a recent visit to South Africa.