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Jacob Zuma

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Farewell Mbeki

23 September 2008

Farewell Mbeki

By Gwynne Dyer

It was widely believed of South Africa’s outgoing president, Thabo Mbeki, that the only time when he wasn’t plotting was when he was asleep. More than his bizarre views on Aids or even his failure to do much for South Africa’s poor, it was that reputation as an inveterate plotter that finally brought him down.

Mbeki’s humiliation has been very great. First the governing African National Congress (ANC) refused to re-elect him as its leader last year, which dashed his hopes of winning a third term in next year’s election. But he would still have remained president until early 2009 — until last weekend, when the ANC leadership, convinced that Mbeki was using the courts to pursue a private vendetta against his rival Jacob Zuma, ordered him to resign early.

Mbeki’s immediate replacement as president is Kgalema Motlanthe, deputy leader of the ANC, but Zuma is universally expected to be elected president of South Africa in the election due early next year.

Mbeki’s fall from grace has been spectacular but hardly surprising. He was Nelson Mandela’s chosen successor, but his style was very different: aloof, intellectual — and endlessly scheming against real and imagined rivals: the upper ranks of the ANC are full of men and women who have been sidelined or betrayed by Mbeki. He also didn’t pay much attention to the opinions of the broader public, particularly in two areas that are vital for South Africa: curbing the AIDS epidemic, and creating jobs for the black poor.

His stubborn denial that AIDS is transmitted by the HIV virus delayed the state-aided provision of retrovirals to HIV-positive patients for years, and was indirectly responsible for the deaths of tens if not hundreds of thousands of South Africans. His neo-liberal economic policies gave the country a relatively high growth rate (5 percent last year), but created very few new jobs. Some people respected Mbeki, but nobody loved him.

What ultimately brought Mbeki down was his feud with Jacob Zuma, which was a self-inflicted wound. Zuma is the antithesis of Mbeki — he’s a left-leaning populist with little formal education and a record of financial and sexual indiscretions — so it’s natural that the two men should dislike and mistrust each other. But the party had forced Mbeki to accept Zuma as his vice-president, and a wiser politician than Mbeki would have gone along with that typical ANC compromise.

Mbeki didn’t, and he seized the opportunity of a corruption charge against Zuma in 2005 to dismiss the latter from the vice-presidency. It was an error that finally brought Mbeki down, for it made Zuma the rallying point for all the elements in the party that could not stand either Mbeki’s policies or his personality.

Even Zuma’s allies suspect that there was something to the corruption charges, for his close associate Schabir Shaik is already in the third year of a fifteen-year prison sentence for his actions in the same case. But the government’s case against Zuma depended on documents seized in a raid on his home and office for which the search warrants may have been invalid, and several judges have dismissed the case on legal technicalities connected with that issue.

Every time, the government prosecutors reinstated the charges or appealed the judgement, and to many Zuma supporters within the ANC it began to look like Mbeki’s private vendetta against their man. Two weeks ago the Constitutional Court dismissed the case against Zuma on the same technicality, and Judge Chris Nicholson openly voiced his suspicion that it was pressure from Mbeki that was keeping it alive.

When government prosecutors appealed the case yet again, the party’s patience with Mbeki snapped, and within days he was gone. So now Jacob Zuma, who is, to put it bluntly, much closer to the popular stereotype of an African politician than either Mandela or Mbeki, is coming to power in South Africa.

Helen Zille, leader of the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, told the BBC that Jacob Zuma is “the leader of a rabble out to grab the spoils of state for their own interests,” and that is certainly the fear of many people in South Africa and elsewhere. If it is true, then the country will now go down the same path of steep political and economic decline that destroyed so many other African countries. But maybe it won’t.

Zuma is flamboyant, probably corrupt, and certainly ignorant. In a recent trial in which he was accused of raping a house-guest, the daughter of a family friend, who he knew was HIV-positive, his defence was a) she was asking for it, because she was wearing a short traditional wrap-around, b) it was against his Zulu culture to turn down a woman, and c) he didn’t use a condom, but took a shower afterwards to protect himself against HIV infection.

But corruption is nothing new in South Africa (it was rife under the apartheid regime) and neither is populism. The country has a free press, independent courts, a modern economy, and a good deal of political sophistication. The left had to get a turn in power some time, and there is some reason to hope that Zuma’s worst instincts will be curbed by his allies.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Helen…infection”)

The Zuma Problem

18 December 2007

The Zuma Problem

By Gwynne Dyer

“The (African National Congress) should not choose someone of whom most of us would be ashamed,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has a fair claim to being South Africa’s living conscience. But on Tuesday the ANC did choose Jacob Zuma as the new party leader, giving him an almost unbeatable advantage in the race to become the country’s next president.

The party conference was a raucous affair, with Zuma’s supporters heckling and booing President Thabo Mbeki. The law only allows Mbeki two terms in the presidency, and he wanted to hold on to the ANC leadership as a way of exerting influence over the choice of the next president after he steps down in 2009. But “most of us”, or at least most of the 4,000 ANC delegates, were not al all ashamed of choosing Zuma, who won the leadership with a 60 percent majority.

Not only that, but Zuma’s supporters made a clean sweep of all five other senior positions in the ANC leadership. Unless he dies or is convicted of some crime between now and 2009, he will be the ANC’s candidate for the presidency — and since the ANC still wins national elections almost automatically, he is very likely to be President Zuma eighteen months from now. How bad would that be?

Thabo Mbeki thinks it would be very bad. In his speech to the conference he referred repeatedly to “ethical leadership,” which was code for “not Jacob Zuma.” The two men were once close political allies despite the huge contrast between their backgrounds: Mbeki the austere intellectual with a master’s degree in economics, Zuma the charismatic demagogue with no formal education. But when Zuma was charged with corruption two years ago Mbeki dismissed him as deputy president.

The corruption charges were dismissed when a court ruled that documents seized during a raid by the National Prosecuting Authority on Zuma’s office and home could not be used against him because the search warrant was defective. He also escaped conviction in a rape case brought against him by the daughter of an old ANC comrade-in-arms who had been staying in his home. And he began his campaign for the leadership of the ANC, the surest route to the presidency itself.

He has won precisely because of what Mbeki sees as his flaws. The rank-and-file membership of the ANC (and many other South Africans, especially among the poor black majority) have grown weary of Mbeki’s distant, almost other-worldly style of leadership, whereas Zuma sings and dances and wears traditional costumes and is definitely one of the boys.

They are also sick of an economy that grows at five percent, but does not seem to spread the prosperity beyond the new black middle class to the deprived millions who still live in squalor. They take Zuma’s warm, affable personality as evidence that he cares more about the poor. And they think that backing Zuma, whatever his faults, is the best way of ensuring that Mbeki really does leave power.

On the other hand, what Mbeki, the South African middle class of all colours, and foreign investors all see in Zuma is a classic African “big man”-style leader in the making. He is not a monster, but he has little respect for the law. His populist instincts would sabotage South Africa’s economic growth, and his dependence on better-educated advisers and old cronies would open the door to massive corruption.

It is not just white South Africans who fear that the miracle of the past fifteen years is very vulnerable, and that the nation could all too easily go the way of so many other African countries if the wrong people get into power. For Mbeki, for Tutu, and one suspects even for Nelson Mandela (who chose Mbeki as his successor, after all), Zuma is the man who could wreck the dream. This may be unfair to Zuma, but he will almost certainly become president in eighteen months’ time unless the law or mortality intervenes.

The law is starting to intervene again. The Supreme Court has just declared the documents seized from Zuma admissible in court, and prosecutors have submitted an affidavit alleging that Zuma received 4 million rand (about $550,000) from a French arms company while he was deputy president. His former financial adviser is already serving a 15-year prison sentence for soliciting a bribe from that company in exchange for Zuma’s support, and if he cannot get those documents ruled out of court again he is in big trouble.

Mortality is an imponderable, of course, and Zuma is only 65. But it was striking that at his rape trial he freely admitted that he had unprotected sex with his accuser, whom he knew to be HIV-positive. He said he took a shower afterwards to avoid infection, which suggests that he is either very stupid — or that he has nothing more to fear from HIV-positive partners.

Odds are that nothing will go wrong, however. Zuma will probably become the president of South Africa in 2009, and then we will see if the fears about him are justified or not. But here’s one positive aspect of the situation: last Tuesday was the first time in 58 years that the ANC has chosen its leader by an open vote.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“They arealso…power”; and “Mortality…partners”)

The South African Succession

10 May 2006

The South African Succession

By Gwynne Dyer

You couldn’t make it up. Former South African deputy president Jacob Zuma, defending himself in court against a charge of rape, explained that the woman who brought the complaint, a family friend less than half his age (she is 31, he is 64) who was staying in his home, had signalled that she wanted to have sex with him. How? By wearing a knee-length skirt and sitting with uncrossed legs. So what was a gentleman to do?

If the woman truly wanted to have sex with him, Zuma pointed out, then the rules of Zulu culture obliged him to oblige her. Not to have done so when she so clearly wanted it would, by the rules of Zulu culture, have been tantamount to raping her. In other words, he had to have sex with her in order not to rape her.

Indeed, so great was Zuma’s desire to do the right thing that he had unprotected sex with her despite the fact that she is an AIDS activist who makes no secret of the fact that she is HIV-positive. There was no condom handy, he explained, and “everybody knows” that men don’t often get the HIV virus from women, and besides, he had a shower afterwards.

Jacob Zuma has had no formal education, but he is not generally seen as a stupid man. Perhaps he really believes that heterosexual men who take showers are safe from AIDS (despite the fact that he was married for almost two decades to a medical doctor who ended up as minister of health). Or perhaps he is secretly HIV-positive himself, and so he doesn’t give a damn. We’ll never know, because the prosecutor didn’t demand a blood sample from him.

Her only justification for doing so would have been that he had recklessly endangered the health of another person (which could lead to a life sentence). But it wouldn’t have led to a stiffer sentence in Zuma’s case even if he had been convicted, since the woman he was accused of raping was known to be HIV-positive already.

In the end, on 8 May, Zuma was found not guilty by the judge, Willem van der Merwe, who explained his decision by saying that “it would be foolish for any man with a police guard at hand and his daughter not far away to surprise a sleeping woman and to start raping her without knowing whether she would shout the roof off.” Van de Merwe added that the alleged victim “has a history of making false accusations of rape.”

This history was helpfully provided by a string of defence witnesses who claimed to have been accused of raping or trying to rape the complainant, though she mostly denied knowing them. They did not face strict cross-examination, however, since by the rules of the court (not to be confused with the rules of Zulu culture) if she denied knowing them, there was no more to be said. Just choose to believe them or to believe her. The judge believed them.

Zuma emerged from the court to be greeted by the usual mob of cheering, mostly Zulu supporters, and joined them in a rousing rendition of “Awulethu Umshini Wam” (Bring Me My Machine-Gun). And although he still faces a further and quite separate trial on corruption charges in July, it already feels as if he is back on track as the leading contender for the presidency of South Africa when Thabo Mbeki retires in 2009. Goodbye “rainbow nation”, hello Zimbabwe South.

Jacob Zuma was a real hero in the anti-apartheid struggle. He spent ten years imprisoned on Robben Island and almost twenty years in exile, ending up as the Chief of the Intelligence Department of the African National Congress. As the highest-profile Zulu in an organisation whose leadership has been dominated by Xhosas (including both Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki), his ascent to the posts of deputy president of South Africa and deputy leader of the ANC was swift and smooth. The problem is that he is a ruthless demagogue and, in many people’s eyes, a crook.

Last June Zuma’s financial adviser, a Durban businessman called Schabir Shaik, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for corrupt dealings in connection with the government’s purchase of warships, a proposed waterfront development in Durban, and lavish spending on Zuma’s residence in Nkandla. The trial judge described the relationship between Shaik and Zuma as “generally corrupt”, Mbeki asked for his resignation as vice-president, and he was committed for trial this July on corruption charges.

His supporters on the left of the ANC and his devoted Zulu followers claim that the rape charge was further evidence of a plot to thwart Zuma’s presidential ambitions, but it was actually an unfortunate coincidence. The case had little chance of success (the vast majority of accused rapists in South Africa go free), but it was a huge distraction from the corruption issue, and his exoneration on the rape charge will cast doubt in the public’s mind on any subsequent conviction for corruption. So Zuma may really be back in business, with a good shot at the succession when Mbeki retires in 2009.

That would not be happy news for South Africa.

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To shorten to 725 word, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Jacob…worse”)