The Magazine

Bring Him His Machine Gun

Meet South Africa's new president.

May 4, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 31 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Last Wednesday, South Africans returned the African National Congress to power for the fourth consecutive time since the end of apartheid in 1994. This was not an unexpected outcome. For the past 15 years, the armed liberation movement turned governing party has dominated the country politics, and at press time, the ANC had maintained its two-thirds majority in parliament. The election came at a critical time for South Africa, and the 80 percent voter turnout was a record. The country is facing its first recession in 17 years, poverty and high unemployment (estimated at 20-40 percent) remain massive problems, and the education system lags behind those of many, far less well-developed African states.

Yet these issues were easily overshadowed by the man South Africans elected president: ANC leader Jacob Zuma. Depending on whom you talk to, Zuma is either a victim of a far-reaching conspiracy aimed at destroying his political career, a bumbling yet charismatic political hack, or a Robert Mugabe-in-waiting.

While Zuma has elements of all three characterizations, he is a far more sophisticated figure than the portrayals on offer from his supporters or detractors. A self-educated, former leader of the intelligence branch of the ANC's armed wing, Zuma was acquitted on rape charges in 2006--but only after claiming that he had intercourse with the HIV-positive woman in question because she was wearing a knee-length skirt and had her legs uncrossed and that he had protected himself from infection by showering afterwards (Zuma, an acknowledged polygamist, has had four wives and currently has three fiancées while estimates of his progeny run from 10 to 18).

For the past four years, Zuma has also been dogged by corruption charges, stemming from accusations that the hundreds of thousands of dollars he received from a shady "financial adviser" were in fact bribes to arrange a lucrative arms deal for a French weapons manufacturer. In a curiously timed decision, the government dropped the case against him three weeks ago, not from lack of evidence but because of supposed prosecutorial misconduct. Indeed, in announcing his abandonment of the charges, the country's chief prosecutor stated that his "team itself had recommended that the prosecution should continue even if the allegations [of political interference] are true, and that it should be left to a court of law to decide whether to stop the prosecution."

Zuma and his supporters in the South African Communist party and Congress of South African Trade Unions (which form an official coalition with the ANC) believe that he is the victim of former president Thabo Mbeki's machinations. Mbeki, who sacked Zuma from his job as deputy president in 2005 when the corruption charges became public, was forced out of office last September after allegations that he had tampered with the Zuma case. Having lost the internal struggle for control of the ANC, a group of Mbeki partisans formed the Congress of the People (COPE) in December, which advertised itself as the first legitimate black-led opposition to ANC rule. Thanks to constant infighting and lackluster leadership, however, COPE received less than 10 percent of the vote on Wednesday.

It's easy for Western journalists to paint Zuma as the archetypal African Big Man. But the reasons why South Africans would vote him into power defy easy caricature. In the years running up to the country's first democratic election, Zuma earned respect for using his position as the ANC's most prominent Zulu to quell violence between ANC supporters and those of the Zulu Inkatha Freedom party. But, it would also be wrong to say that most ANC voters define themselves as Zuma supporters. The ANC's hegemonic role in South African politics is attributable to its historic role as a national liberation movement, and its post-apartheid standing is not unlike that of the Democratic machine in Boston; either could put up an inanimate object of their choosing for office, and it would win. Polls before the election showed that 60 percent of voters distrust Zuma and that only 41 percent of ANC voters believed him to be innocent of corruption. The party, and Zuma, still won an overwhelming majority.

What can't be overstated is the power of Zuma's personality. In August 2006, I attended a preliminary hearing for Zuma's corruption trial in the small city of Pietermaritzburg, located in historic Zululand. Inside the courtroom were order, jurisprudence, and men in black, flowing robes speaking the Queen's English. Outside were hordes of Zulus chanting and waving signs calling for the political head of Mbeki.