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.

When Zuma exited the courthouse, resplendent in his pinstripe suit, a deafening cheer arose from the thousands amassed in the city center. Surrounded by security men in red ties, (a sign of support for the South African Communist party), Zuma climbed the stage that had been erected for him and performed the anti-apartheid struggle song "Bring Me My Machine Gun" in his native Zulu. He does this frequently at his public appearances, endearing him to his supporters and alarming his critics. The crowd was in absolute hysterics, singing along and cheering as Zuma stomped his feet and shook his fist. Though this man seems like any run-of-the-mill, corrupt strongman, the exuberance of the crowd and warm tones of Zuma's voice are infectious, even to the cynical outsider. I felt chills, finding myself caught between Zuma's personal magnetism and my own presumption of his legal culpability.

The fact is that, in spite of the sympathy he has won from the left, no one really knows where Jacob Zuma stands on the serious issues facing the country. He has been critical of Mbeki's shameful policy of propping up Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. Zuma has also been more conciliatory in dealing with the country's economically powerful white minority--especially Afrikaners--many of whom felt the cold shoulder of the ANC in spite of its "Rainbow Nation" rhetoric. Where Mbeki called critics of the nation's out-of-control crime racists, Zuma has spoken eloquently of his own experience as a mugging victim. Tackling violent crime will be a priority for his government as South Africa prepares to host next year's World Cup.

In spite of Zuma's demagoguery and ideological indeterminateness, there are reasons for hope. While some Western investors fear Zuma's populist rhetoric and strong ties to the ANC's furthest left elements, Trevor Manuel, the widely admired finance minister who has overseen consistently high growth rates over the past 12 years, will stay on as steward of the South African economy. "Our economy won't become ideological, it will stay rational," Manuel recently said, hinting that the giant personality in the presidential office won't adversely affect the country's monetary and fiscal policies. The Democratic Alliance--the descendant of the liberal, white anti-apartheid Progressive party--respectably increased its share of the vote total from 12 to 16 percent, winning control of the Western Cape Province and continuing to make inroads among nonwhite voters. Its growth and the very existence of an ANC-breakaway party are signs of the slow erosion of South Africa's essentially one-party state.

Still, much depends on how Jacob Zuma performs. Will he move to further blur the line between state institutions and the ANC, a process that accelerated under Mbeki? Will he govern as the democratically elected leader of all South Africans or seek to serve the sectarian interests of his party and tribe? Followers of American politics like to talk a lot about "charisma," but not even the most charismatic of American political figures--not Barack Obama, not Ronald Reagan--inspire the devotion that Zuma engenders amongst his supporters, a loyalty that is partly based on ethnicity, but also indelibly a result of South Africa's history of struggle against racial oppression and Zuma's heroic role in that fight. Nelson Mandela had such power, but his decency and selfless devotion to the betterment of his country (as opposed to his own interests) were never in question. The entrancing qualities of Jacob Zuma similarly speak to something meaningful, but also disturbing, about the direction of South African politics.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor at the New Republic. He has reported extensively from South Africa and Zimbabwe.

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