Report from South Africa


Deputy presidents are normally unknown quantities outside their own countries, unless they become potential presidential successors or get into hot water. South Africa’s Jacob Zuma has managed to do both simultaneously. Last month, the sixty-four-year-old Zuma, number-two leader of the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s largest political party, was acquitted of rape in a bruising trial in Johannesburg. Zuma still faces another, perhaps even more daunting trial, this one on corruption charges involving a French arms firm. If he is acquitted, all eyes will be on the December 2007 ANC conference, at which the party will elect new leaders. In South Africa, presidents are not elected directly. Instead, the leader of the winning party in the general election (certain to be the ANC) becomes South Africa’s next president. It could be Zuma.

The ANC is a political colossus. It swept to power after the demise of apartheid, and has increased that power during the presidencies of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. The ANC currently holds a two-thirds majority in Parliament, giving it the capacity to change even the constitution. It has powerful allies in the Congress of South African Trade Unions and in the Communist Party, and is the only political show in town. By comparison, the opposition is a pathetic group of squabbling dwarves.

South Africa is currently enjoying a booming economy, taking advantage of the huge global demand for its raw materials. People with skills have never had it so good—black and white alike. Jobs are slowly being created. A new black middle class is arising and spending a lot of money, forging a dynamic new internal market.

One would have thought that the transition to a new president in 2009 would not be problematic for such a powerful, self-confident political force as the ANC. But with the Zuma affair and the fact that President Mbeki is now well into his second, final term, a leadership crisis is in the making.

Although Mbeki continues to win general approval, he is showing signs of being a lame-duck president, and he faces increased challenges from his political left. Some are wary that Mbeki will try to bypass Zuma and anoint his own pliant successor as head of the ANC so that Mbeki can exert power after leaving office—a third term by stealth. But some in the powerful labor unions, the Communist Party, and even the ANC Youth League are itching to see Mbeki, the aloof, calculating political lever-puller, get his comeuppance. They think he has sold out to the capitalists and they support Zuma, who they believe would be the president of the poor.

Despite legal problems and the embarrassment of his recent trial, Zuma continues to enjoy support, particularly from members of his own Zulu ethnic group and from the Left. But the latter may yet waver, depending on the outcome of Zuma’s upcoming legal proceedings. A judge in the trial of Shabir Shaik, Zuma’s business contact, has already asserted that the two men had a “generally corrupt relationship.”

Zuma is a born politician. A charmer who knows how to work a crowd, he is a traditional polygamist who is considered a patriarchal “man’s man,” the self-made rural boy who overcame his lack of education to climb to the deputy presidency. He has proved an effective peacemaker in politics, and his poverty-to-power story continues to move South Africa’s poor, powerless underclass. They sense it is OK to be rural and/or poor with Zuma around; it’s not so much that the now-prosperous Zuma identifies with the “people,” but that many of them identify with him. They see in Zuma a powerful patriarch who has arrived, both in terms of traditional values and modern success; a quasi-feudal figure who offers protection, reassurance, even livelihood; the fecund tree under whose branches others find security. Such a tree will be protected against those who would attempt to fell it.

But even the stoutest tree feels an earthquake, and the confluence of Zuma’s recent legal trials has sent out tremors. Many South Africans are beginning to ask whether Zuma—a married man whose lack of judgment led him to have unprotected sexual intercourse with an emotionally vulnerable, HIV-positive family friend half his age—ought to step into the shoes once worn by Nelson Mandela. There is a painful awareness that the Zuma trials have draped the nation’s soiled linen before the world, including its high HIV/AIDS rates, culture wars, street violence, political cronyism, and tribalism. And this has tapped into some racially tinged fears: for whites, that African electorates are suckers for strongmen who turn prosperity into Zimbabwes; for blacks, that their culture, traditions, and political icons continue to endure insults from the white-dominated media.

Women’s groups expressed utter dismay at some of Zuma’s statements in court, as did people concerned about the HIV/AIDS pandemic. His admission that he had unprotected sex with a person he knew to be HIV-positive—and then took a shower in the belief that this would reduce his chances of infection—caused a collective gasp. At a media briefing after his acquittal, Zuma went into damage control, apologizing to the nation for his irresponsible behavior and fudging the gaffe about the shower. Gender activists predict even fewer women will now bring charges against rapists and abusers; the complainant herself has already gone into exile, her flight underlining the sexual violence that continues to dog South African life.

For their part, Zuma’s supporters see a political plot to derail his presidential bid—a conspiracy against Zuma, an ethnic Zulu, hatched by the supporters of Mbeki, an ethnic Xhosa, and by the intellectual elite of the ANC. The Zulus and Xhosas are cultural and linguistic cousins from adjacent regions along the eastern coast, who have coexisted with only occasional conflict. While the Zulus are the larger group and have a distinguished military history, the Xhosas are perceived as having an edge in political savvy, born of a much longer experience in dealing with white settlers. Suspicion of wily Xhosas is by no means uncommon among other ethnic groups. Meanwhile, everyone either denies there is a tribal issue or fervently hopes there isn’t. ANC leaders say there is no truth to rumors that Zuma was set up, but there is no denying the rape charge has been used against him by his enemies. For his part, Zuma believes he is a victim of trial by the media and of a conspiracy.

As a result of the crisis, some South Africans are beginning to hope that neither Zuma nor Mbeki’s candidate (possibly either Deputy President Mrs. Mlambo-Ngcuka, or Foreign Minister Mrs. Nkosazana-Zuma—ironically Zuma’s ex-wife) will win, and that another South African miracle can be worked, a unifying, Mandela-like figure emerging from the upheaval. Unfortunately, that hope may fade as quickly as the great old man’s declining health.

During negotiations for the postaparthied constitution, the ANC resisted the idea of a direct presidential election. Instead, it insisted that the presidency be a gift to the winning party. Now the ANC must take responsibility for that decision.

Published in the 2006-06-16 issue: 

Chris Chatteris, SJ, works for the Jesuit Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa (

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