What do you call a man who is a self-professed communist; has been accused of rape but the charges have been dropped, along with charges of fraud and racketeering; who practices polygamy and has 18 acknowledged children; and whose favorite song is “Mshini Wami” (Bring Me My Machine Gun)? You may call him a thug, but South Africans are about to call him Mr. President.
Step forward Jacob Zuma, 67, who led the African National Congress (ANC) to a resounding majority in the recent election and who will shortly be elected president by the South African parliament. This is a prospect that has delighted the poor black electorate of South Africa as much as it has terrified the rest of the population, including the country’s 5 million whites.
Once again, it would appear that Africa is throwing up a “Big Man” who will lead them into the Valley of the Shadow of Death–and leave them there. Think of Idi Amin of Uganda, Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who are just three of Africa’s megalomaniacal villains.
Although much is known about his bizarre conduct and strangely contradictory pronouncements, nobody has any real idea of how Zuma will govern. Already he is suspected of getting a key ally out of a 15-year prison sentence, after 28 months, on alleged medical grounds.
In most things Zuma left a trail of wreckage behind him, such as when he operated out of the ANC office in Maputo, Mozambique, during the struggle against apartheid. Similar stories of wild conduct and corrupt goings on came from Lusaka, Zambia, where Zuma ran the ANC intelligence network.
Zuma did one incontrovertibly positive thing: as a Zulu, he was able to stop the fighting between the Zulus and the Xhosas that threatened to tear the ANC apart and with it South Africa itself, after the fall of apartheid.
This was not an inconsiderable achievement, considering the role of the Zulus in South African history. First the Zulus, at 11 million people, are the largest ethnic grouping among South Africa’s 48 million people. They are also the Prussians of South Africa: proud, warlike and with a distinct sense of superiority. They were formed into a cohesive nation in 1816, under Shaka Zulu; and were the only African tribe to decisively defeat the British at Isandalwana in l879.
For a while it looked as though the Inkatha Freedom Party, under Mangosuthu Buthelezi, would imperil the ANC’s grip on power. But Zuma, with Zulu credentials and a leadership role in the ANC, quieted the Zulu unrest and the ANC prospered.
Although for many years Zuma was a member of the Communist Party of South Africa and has talked of wealth distribution, recently he has been kinder to business and even appears to be fascinated by it.
Encouragingly, some of Zuma’s statements about President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe are stronger and more critical than anything said by Thabo Mbeki, the man Zuma is replacing. Mbeki was committed to “quiet diplomacy,” which meant say nothing and do less. He was part of Africa’s post-colonial omerta: an implicit vow never to criticize another African leader even when he is a problem to you–as Zimbabwe is to South Africa with millions of refugees flooding over the Limpopo River.
White South Africans, and particularly farmers, are terrified that Zuma may yet take a leaf out Mugabe’s book and introduce race-based land redistribution and begin the destruction of the country.
Another concern is Zuma’s attitude to AIDS. Mbeki famously did not support Western therapies for many years and believed in quack remedies that assisted in the spread of the disease. Zuma’s alleged rape victim, the 35-year-old daughter of a politician, is known to be HIV-positive. Zuma said the sex was consensual and he then took a shower to minimize his chances of catching the virus. That suggested that his knowledge of AIDS is not much better than Mbeki’s.
Zuma, who likes to sing and dance at political events, is a conundrum. But there is no mystery about the challenges facing him: his base is poor and believes in instant solutions. While it is in Zuma’s power to wreck his beautiful country as so many other Big Men of Africa have done to theirs, there is little he can do in a recession to fulfill the expectations of his neediest supporters. Will he, like Mugabe, try to deflect public opinion by blaming the prosperous?