The president in waiting tells of his blueprint for government
Even as prosecutors fought a last-ditch battle to put him on trial last week, Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president-in-waiting, was describing a background rooted in traditional African values that could define the kind of leader that will emerge.
He spoke about growing up in rural Zululand. “We did all the things boys should do,” he said. “Hunting birds. Swimming in the big rivers. Fighting with sticks. What we call in Zulu the man-making.” He sighed longingly, as if describing the maturing of a Zulu warrior king. “It was absolutely wonderful,” he said.
Zuma, 67 today, has stories about discrimination but they have to be drawn out of him. His is not the standard black South African childhood narrative but a lovesong to a lost Africa where people had “the great and loving heart” to take care of orphans and the aged in their own families; where there was no need for prisons, because miscreants were either executed or fined – in terms of cattle, rather than money.
Zuma sometimes struggles to find the right words in English. He is entirely open about his lack of formal education and presents himself as the humble servant of his party. “I am just a pawn moved into this position by the African National Congress [ANC],” he said. “Not an important piece. Not a knight nor a rook. Just a pawn.”
The corollary is that a pawn cannot be expected to confirm an anticipated leftward shift in ANC policies. Further questions are politely deflected. But when it comes to Zulu culture, Zuma is expansive.
“The teaching of respect was deep,” he said. “How to live in a community. How to do the things a man ought to do, like propose love to girls. But critically, I was taught bravery. A man must be brave. Nothing must defeat you. In other words, real, fundamental teachings of a warrior.”
Zuma’s arch-rival Thabo Mbeki, the former president, might have devoted more thought to this before authorising corruption charges against Zuma. The Zulu and his supporters saw the charges as a plot to eliminate him as a contender for Mbeki’s throne, mounting a counter-offensive that ended in his defeat.
At a press conference in Pretoria last Monday, Mokotedi Mpshe, the chief prosecutor, unveiled phone-tap recordings of conversations between members of Mbeki’s administration. While the tapes fell short of proving a conspiracy, they did reveal that the head of the agency prosecuting Zuma was taking orders from Bulelani Ngcuka, the millionaire businessman and one of Mbeki’s closest confidants. Mpshe concluded that the prosecution was fatally tainted and charges against Zuma were withdrawn.
“This is a disgrace,” said Helen Zille, the Democratic Alliance leader who accused Mpshe of caving in to pressure to clear Zuma’s name before the April 22 general election, which the ANC is predicted to win comfortably. Her party has vowed to challenge Mpshe’s decision in court, but meanwhile the die is cast: as ANC leader Zuma will automatically become South Africa’s next president after the polls.
In a way his ascent to power is an event not dissimilar in its unlikelihood to a black man seizing the US presidency. The ANC has traditionally drawn its leaders from a Christian, westernised elite. Mbeki, for instance, came from a family of academics. As a child his mother would warn him that if he failed to apply himself at school he would wind up like “these people”, by which she meant peasants who practised polygamy, worshipped their ancestors and often danced in loincloths and leopardskin.
This is, of course, a fairly accurate description of Zuma, whose communion with South Africa’s poor and rural is based largely on mutual recognition. When he addresses the masses, he sounds entirely unlike any previous ANC leader. He says children should be reared to fear God and respect their elders. He is an advocate of polygamy, but there is confusion about the number of his wives. He is believed to have 22 children by six women. He says there is too much sex and nudity on television. He says criminals are “hiding behind” South Africa’s human rights constitution and should be “made to talk to the police”.
Such statements appal left-liberals who once lionised the ANC. I asked Zuma why. “Westerners have always looked at us differently,” he said. “They believe that if you exercise your culture you are backward.”
Zuma’s blueprint for governance accords fairly closely with the descriptions of early anthropologists: like any African king, he will rely on the counsel of wise advisers. This worries Mosiuoa Lekota, the former ANC hero and now a leader of the breakaway Congress of the People. He points out that the Communist party and its allied trade unions played a critical role in the overthrow of Mbeki and believes the left now controls the ANC.
“Even Zuma has said as much,” Lekota noted. “He told the ANC national executive, ‘I owe nobody anything here. The only people I will consult beyond the election is the Communist party and the unions’.”
This places the spotlight on Blade Nzimande, the Communist party general secretary, a Rolling Stones fan whose mantelpiece features photographs of himself with Fidel Castro, Cuba’s former dictator.
“All we’d like to see,” said Nzimande, “is a big cooperative movement, strengthening of the small business sector and better conditions for the working class.” He laughingly refuted the suggestion that he was a social democrat. “Not at all,” he said. “I’m a communist.”
Moeletsi Mbeki, an economist and brother of the former president, notes that the country is already a welfare state, with 13m people – nearly 30% of the population – on state grants. If this collapses, he foresees “massive instability”.
“South Africa is now entering a very risky period,” he said. “Blacks feel they were victimised by whites and are owed a living, so they don’t have to work themselves.” At the moment big business seems unconcerned and Zuma draws favourable reviews in unlikely quarters. “Zuma clearly has challenges and flaws,” said Tony Leon, a former opposition leader. “I do, however, think he’s plugged in to the concerns of ordinary South Africans and has none of Mbeki’s fatal pseudo-intellectualism. He’s going to be more inclusive, merit-driven, and might even hold his government to higher account than Mbeki did.”
At the conclusion of our interview, I asked Zuma what he planned to do about the inept civil service. “There is no magic bullet,” he said, “but I am a great admirer of King Shaka Zulu, who could be ruthless.”
Shaka smashed the skulls of those who displeased him. If this was a veiled warning to corrupt and lazy bureaucrats, only good can come of it.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
The president in waiting tells of his blueprint for government