The 65th birthday party of Jacob Zuma was a splendid affair. Hundreds of the political and business elite of Durban, a humid old British colonial city on the Indian Ocean, had gathered in a convention centre decorated as a star-filled night sky. A Zulu praise-singer roared a tribute. Five of Zuma’s daughters performed a sketch to the tune of “Happy Birthday”. Everyone sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”. As a small army of waiters wheeled in a 2m-long cake, “JZ” presided gracefully in a black-and-gold Nehru suit.
It was April 2007, and South Africa’s then president Thabo Mbeki and Zuma were in the midst of their tumultuous battle for control of the African National Congress, a fight that threatened to define the future of not just Africa’s oldest liberation movement, but also the post-apartheid state.
A young management consultant on my right was deftly saluting the talents of both men when my mobile phone rang. It was Mahlamba Ndlopfu (“The new dawn”), the president’s residence. Moments later I heard Mbeki’s distinctive deep, mellifluous voice. He had just returned from the Sudan. He wanted to send me an e-mail about a conversation we had had the previous week. Mbeki had long been mocked by critics for his penchant for surfing the internet at night – and here he was at 9pm on a Saturday catching up on his e-mails. “God moves in mysterious ways,” he said in conclusion, although to what I could not quite hear. Back in the ballroom, Zuma was taking to the dance floor for a solo performance.
I read Mbeki’s e-mail message late that night. He had wanted to draw my attention to recent cases of supposedly inaccurate reporting of his government. He passed on a friendly message to my family and concluded with a flourish, that to understand the media I needed to know a Xhosa expression, “Alitshoni lingenandaba”. This, he explained, could be translated as, “Each day brings its fresh baggage of news”. I wrote back vowing to bear it in mind. Within hours, back came another e-mail. To help me to understand the saying, Mbeki had composed a mock news item in which “President Mbeki [is found] riding a goat on the grounds of the Union Buildings [the government headquarters] stark naked”. High jinks ensue, with the police who discover the naked president winding up in hospital, treated by a specialist in exorcisms of ghosts and evil spirits. “One might then respond to this news,” concluded Mbeki, “by exclaiming alitshoni lingenandaba! This usage would be akin to the meaning that the ancient Romans attached to the expression Ex Africa semper aliquid novi [Africa always brings something new]!”
It was vintage Mbeki, encapsulating the inquisitive man groomed from his youth as a future leader – yet whose hypersensitivity and desire to be an African intellectual tarnished his and his country’s reputation as he pursued disastrous policies on Aids and Zimbabwe. It also highlighted the contrast with the ebullient, larger-than-life Zuma who would soon be Mbeki’s successor: he won the party’s leadership contest eight months after his birthday celebrations, paving the way for his election as the country’s president at Wednesday’s elections.
Quoting Latin is not Zuma’s style. He only learnt to read and write as an adult, and appears more comfortable telling stories and passing around a vat of sorghum beer with clansmen (though he doesn’t drink) in rural Zululand than discussing policy, one of Mbeki’s favoured pursuits. Mbeki agonised over what it meant to be an authentic African leader. Zuma, it seems, is one. He is the ultimate modern tribal chief, a man who will listen to his people, who understands their concerns and who will not necessarily let the niceties of western political convention impede his plans.
On Wednesday, Zuma will lead the ANC into the third post-apartheid elections, a contest it is certain to win. It is 15 years since millions of citizens queued for hours under a diamond-bright sky to cast their first democratic vote, just a decade since Nelson Mandela, the nation’s first black president, stepped down from office. Now South Africa is to be led by another man with the popular touch, but one with a rather more controversial record.
Zuma talks of renewal, and the election does offer a fresh start for an ANC beginning to lose its way. But until two weeks ago Zuma faced 17 counts of corruption, racketeering and fraud; his closest allies include the scandal-hit Winnie Madikizela-Mandela; and his supporters have shown little respect for the foundations of democracy in their bid to get their man in power. At his court appearances, they have gathered and protested against his supposed persecution, crudely comparing his legal challenges with the legendary political trials under apartheid, and stirring up tribal antagonism – a tactic the ANC deplored in the past. When Zuma gets in front of these crowds, he is more than a politician: briefly, he becomes something closer to a revivalist preacher, or the leader of a cult.
Zuma’s life, far more than Mbeki’s or indeed Mandela’s, encompasses what the “struggle” meant to most black South Africans. His predecessors as ANC leaders came from the party’s university-educated middle-class elite; he grew up in a remote Zulu village where he herded livestock and fought other youths with sticks, just as Zulus had done for centuries. While he recalls his early years lovingly, it was a difficult and broken upbringing – the disjointed childhood experienced by so many growing up under apartheid. His father, a policeman, died when he was young. His mother was away for months on end, working as a domestic servant. There was no school in the village, and Zuma started learning to read and write by asking schoolchildren in the surrounding area to share books with him. He also paid a local woman two shillings and sixpence a month for evening classes, which his uncles allowed him to attend after he put the cattle in the kraal for the night.
With this background, he understands better than many in the ANC that traditional beliefs still matter to millions of South Africans. His is a country, after all, in which a majority of the population still believe in consulting traditional healers, and where for many faith in witchcraft does not contradict the logical certainties of a western liberal education.
In early adulthood, Zuma became a trade union organiser and then a member of the fledgling Umkhonto we Sizwe (or MK) – the militant wing of the ANC. When preparing to flee into exile for military training, he was arrested and, in August 1963, sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island. Zuma did not seem overawed by his many intellectual superiors in the famous prison; he sang on the boat out to the island to keep up his fellow prisoners’ spirits, recalls Ebrahim Ebrahim, a fellow MK activist who travelled with him in a windowless police van from Pretoria to Cape Town en route to the island. Indeed, he always seemed to be singing, whether in a Zulu choral group that he organised or when he broke into freedom songs in the limestone quarries. “He was always very cheerful,” Ebrahim says. “He kept morale very high… He was both a rural person and a modern person, and this rural nature remains with him. He combines Zulu culture with modern life; that is his brilliance.”
The crux of the Zuma legend in the ANC was forged in December 1975, when he began living in exile in the “frontline states” – the group of southern African countries that collectively opposed apartheid – and progressed swiftly through the ranks of MK. As head of intelligence from 1987, he was responsible for deploying agents back into South Africa, a risky mission that led to the imprisonment, torture and death of some of his protégés. In August 1993, an internal ANC report into human rights abuses committed in its detention camps in exile rebuked senior officials, including Zuma, saying the camps had become “dumping grounds for all who fell foul of the security department, whether they were loyal supporters accused of being enemy agents, suspected spies or convicts”.
Zuma’s old comrades remember him as inspirational. Moe Shaik, one of his closest friends, was part of a clandestine ANC mission that sent agents into South Africa in 1990 as an insurance policy should the talks with the white government collapse. Zuma, he said, was the perfect leader. He was always the last to see the agents before they headed off on their perilous mission. “His words were not those of an uncaring commander hugging an idiot soldier going off to die in battle. When Zuma spoke, you sensed he meant it.” But the findings of the commission served as a reminder that behind Zuma’s cheery façade there was a hardened revolutionary who had had to take his share of unpalatable decisions.
In retrospect, those were the glory days for Zuma. He and Mbeki helped run a series of secret talks in Britain with prominent Afrikaners, and by the time Zuma returned home in 1990, he was one of the most valued figures in the exile movement. Soon after his return, Mandela gave him a vital task, to negotiate peace between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party, a Zulu nationalist movement in the Zulu heartland. At a time of bloody raids and counter-raids by both sides, his was a rare voice of moderation. Frank Mdlalose, Zuma’s opposite in the negotiations, remembers being impressed that Zuma ignored the rhetorical sniping of his own side. “I found the man very steady and easy, and quick to bring about a joke and a laugh to break the ice,” Mdlalose recalled. “He was quite firm on his search for peace.”
On one occasion, the old Stalinist Harry Gwala told an ANC meeting that Zuma was making a profound mistake talking to Mdlalose and that he was like Neville Chamberlain appeasing the Nazis. Zuma stood up and said, “I am afraid I shall continue talking to Mdlalose.”
In 1994, rather than giving Zuma a national cabinet post, as might have been his due, Mandela appointed him to the provincial cabinet in KwaZulu-Natal, which was governed by an Inkatha-led coalition. His mission was to broker a lasting peace among the Zulus and end a decade of turmoil in the region. This Zuma helped to negotiate, in probably the finest achievement of his career.
The year 1994 proved a turning point for Zuma. When the South African government lifted the ban on the ANC in 1990, the homecoming for thousands of exiles was bittersweet. For years, they had lived off ANC stipends; now they had to create a new life from nothing. Even the most senior officials received only about R2,000 (then £400) a month from the movement, enough for living expenses possibly but not to support a household, still less buy a home.
In the transition years from 1990 to 1994, Zuma relied, as he had in exile, on the party and friends to fund him. But in 1994, the era of “struggle accounting” came to an end. In his first post after the 1994 elections, as the minister for economic affairs in KwaZulu-Natal, he earned about R20,000 a month, a handsome salary by South African standards. When Mbeki made him deputy president in 1999, his salary, including allowances, increased to about R870,000 a year. It appears, however, this was not enough for his needs.
He had a large family. A proud believer in the polygamous tradition of rural Zululand, by 1990 he had three wives and at least 10 children. He also faced a flood of expectations in his home village. It was assumed that Zuma would step into the traditional role of local boy made good, and deploy his influence and money to help the community. He would also be expected to have a household and lifestyle that fitted his status.
Badly in need of money, he turned increasingly to an old comrade from the struggle, Schabir Shaik, an ANC wheeler-dealer who set himself up as Zuma’s financial adviser and provided him with a series of interest-free loans. Between October 25 1995 and July 1 2005, Shaik gave him R4,072,499 in 783 payments. In 2004, Shaik was brought to trial over allegedly seeking Zuma’s support in the bidding process of a controversial multibillion-dollar arms procurement package, and subsequently seeking his protection from investigations into the deal. In June 2005, Shaik was found guilty of corruption and fraud and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Two weeks later, Mbeki fired Zuma as deputy president – and a week after that, Zuma himself was charged with corruption. The case collapsed in 2005, when the judge struck it off the roll after the prosecution service said it needed more time to pursue its case. But the prosecution made clear it was planning to charge him again.
Even as he tried to fend off the prosecutors, Zuma found himself in a different brand of legal trouble. The daughter of a family friend – 31 years old and HIV positive – accused him of rape. He used his 2006 trial as a political stage, stressing his Zulu roots. He spoke isiZulu in court, and on his acquittal, celebrated with the mainly Zulu crowd outside the courtroom, delivering an impassioned rendition of the old liberation hymn, “Bring Me My Machine Gun”. But his victory came at a price to his reputation. During the trial, he had argued that according to Zulu custom the woman’s short dress was an invitation to sex. He also said he hadn’t worn a condom but made sure to take a shower afterwards to protect himself from HIV. In a country with a terrible record of rape and the world’s highest number of people living with Aids, these were appalling remarks.
Then, in 2007, Zuma was charged with fraud and corruption for a second time; the indictment included the new charges of racketeering, money-laundering and tax evasion, and exposed Zuma’s alleged reliance on Shaik. Shaik’s companies are alleged to have paid money to Zuma’s wives and ex-wives, pocket money to his children, car repayments, rent and even, on one occasion, R10 for the “wash and vacuum” of his car. Shaik had testified in his trial that he had helped to pay for school fees for Zuma’s children, airfares and car repairs but had done this out of friendship.
Asked if it wasn’t a problem that Shaik had subsidised his life, Zuma once said, “If I thought there was anything wrong with it, I’m sure I would have asked myself: ‘What is wrong with it?’”
Zuma’s supporters say the payments were loans, and argue that his was merely the behaviour of a traditional African leader who has neither the time nor inclination to bother with petty finances. His camp also argues that the investigation had been politicised and the prosecutors were pursuing Mbeki’s vendettas.
Mbeki certainly had a motive to see Zuma undermined. By 2005, relations between the old allies had deteriorated markedly. Mbeki’s enemies on the left and in the unions had coalesced around Zuma, and some in Mbeki’s circle feared he was lining himself up as a successor.
While Mbeki and the investigators – the Directorate of Special Operations or Scorpions – denied complicity, there seems little doubt that the state prosecutors faced intermittent political pressure. In September 2008, Zuma’s supporters claimed vindication when Judge Chris Nicholson dismissed the corruption charges for a second time, saying that “political meddling cannot be excluded”. A week later, the ANC formally recalled Mbeki from the presidency, and he had to stand down, humiliated.
Earlier this month, the prosecutors dropped the corruption charges, clearing the way for Zuma to take office without the burden of a court case hanging over him. The head of the National Prosecuting Authority lent some credence to Zuma’s claims of persecution, arguing that a former head of the Scorpions had abused the legal process. But the opposition accused the NPA of buckling under political pressure and the fundamental point remained: Zuma had still not cleared his name.
Throughout all of this, Zuma has never seemed to lose his cool. When I interviewed him after his election as ANC leader, he answered 30 questions in an hour – five times the number Mbeki dispatched in an hour-and-a-half interview a year earlier. Zuma was confident, self-deprecating. The only time he became animated was when asked about his corruption trial, but his approach even then was one of a pastor responding to a misguided congregant rather than a politician on the defensive.
If South Africa is lucky, a president Zuma will be a Ronald Reagan. He will make the country feel good about itself after the awkward questions – over Aids and race and crime – raised under Mbeki. Zuma has assiduously courted minorities, in particular Afrikaners, and his frankness about the troubles plaguing South Africa – and also the problems in Zimbabwe – is refreshing after the chilly intellectualism of Mbeki. He also will, he suggests, step down after five years.
In his native Nkandla and at his home in suburban Johannesburg, there is always a line of people waiting to see Zuma, whether businessmen, friends or fellow members of his clan. None are turned away. When the ANC leader was in London last spring, marking his formal coming out on to the world stage with a visit to Gordon Brown, business luminaries flocked to meet him. When Lakshmi Mittal, the billionaire Indian industrialist, arrived for his appointment, Zuma was running late. Someone was dispatched to Zuma’s hotel suite; it was assumed he was he involved in negotiations over the unfolding crisis in Zimbabwe. Instead he was chatting to two members of his clan who happened to be in London and wanted to pay their respects.
It is a charming image. After several years of trading nightmare scenarios about the implications of Zuma becoming president, members of the business world compete to tell such endearing stories; and he insists he is willing to listen to their concerns.
There is, however, a less reassuring scenario than that of a latterday Reagan: the growth of a Big Man personality cult designed to mask South Africa’s growing social and economic problems, against the backdrop of a government making ever grander promises, and a steady implosion of the ANC’s sense of purpose. Mbeki’s tenure ended in ignominy but it should not be forgotten that he bravely led the ANC away from many of its outdated statist economic views. Some fear Zuma will prove the puppet of his leftwing supporters. But the greatest danger under a president Zuma may be not of a sudden ideological lurch, but of a vacuum of leadership and authority. For all his charm, Zuma has the populist’s trait of sometimes saying what his audiences want to hear – at a time when the party and country desperately need a strong hand at the tiller.
The ideal solution to the power struggle in the ANC would have been for Zuma and Mbeki to have stepped aside, paving the way for someone from the next generation to take over, someone less scarred by the battles of the past. Instead, South Africa looks set to enter a new age of uncertainty.
Alec Russell is the FT’s world news editor and the former southern Africa bureau chief.
This is an edited extract from Bring Me My Machine Gun: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa, from Mandela to Zuma, published by PublicAffairs. It is published in the UK as After Mandela: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa, published by Hutchinson.
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