The Western world has come to expect South Africa’s leaders since Nelson Mandela to reflect the sophistication and erudition of its first black president. Jacob Zuma, known as JZ, the newly elected head of the African National Congress (ANC), the dominant political party, is about to change that perception.
It is said that Jacob Zuma was virtually illiterate until his adult years. His ten years in prison on Robben Island and fifteen more in exile earned JZ a graduate degree in political action. Zuma comes from a Zulu subsistence farming family in the rural town of Nkandla in the KwaZulu — Natal province. He had joined Umkhonto we Sizwe (armed wing of the ANC) only two years before he was arrested for his organizational work as a trade unionist and sent off to jail in 1964. He was all of 22 at the time.
Returning to South Africa at age 47, he had acquired all the skills of an experienced political operator. The ebullient personality that had sustained Jacob Zuma through his years on Robben Island and later as an intelligence chief in exile served him well in entering public life upon his return home in 1990. He spoke as an exuberant voice of the people and they responded in kind.
Most importantly, though JZ lacks the formal education of those who preceded him in leadership, Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Thabo Mbeki, he makes up for their greater sophistication by his oratorical ability to relate to the impoverishment in the villages and townships. Jacob Zuma is a man of the people and loves showing it. He sings the songs of liberation before and after his speeches, and the audience reacts as they would to an African rock star. His and their favorite is “Mshini Wami,” which loosely translates, “Bring Me My Machine Gun.”
To say that South African business fears the strong socialist views of Zuma is an understatement. It is clear that the traditional wing of the ANC, as well as the highly successful manufacturing and mining interests of the country, are quietly urging on the National Prosecuting Authority. The prosecutor has charged the newly elected head of the ANC with fraud and corruption. The trial is set for August.
It isn’t the first time JZ has been up on corruption charges: the earlier ones, also on a multi-billion dollar arms deal, were dropped on a technicality. He was acquitted of rape charges, involving a family friend, last year. In both instances, he was defended by his followers as a victim of a political smear campaign. Despite these concerted actions against him, Jacob Zuma succeeded last December in overwhelmingly defeating the institutional favorite, President Thabo Mbeki, in the ANC voting.
Jacob Zuma is destined to play a leadership role in South Africa no matter the objection and maneuvering of the traditional forces, black and white. He now heads the ANC and has the strong support of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party — to say nothing of his ground roots following in the provinces and townships. The ANC controls the vote for president of the nation, and that election occurs in 2009.
The hope of JZ’s rivals is that he will be convicted and thus prevented by constitutional law from becoming president of South Africa. The only trouble with that thinking is that placing Jacob Zuma in jail and preventing him from running for the nation’s top office can trigger a violent public reaction throughout the country. No one — not even JZ — wants that.
The implicit threat remains, however, that continued pursuit of Jacob Zuma on criminal charges that prevent him from legally accepting the guaranteed endorsement of the ANC — and thus a sure presidential victory — may result in the destruction of the political process as it currently exists.
JZ has represented himself as South Africa’s “everyman,” or as he has said: “I am just a little herd boy from Nkandla who happened to be a trade unionist and politician who participated in the struggle. Rest assured, I will always be what I am. I will never change.”
One way or the other, the South African establishment, black and white, will have to deal with Jacob Zuma. The future of the nation as a stable political and economic entity may be at stake.