We were about to finish tea when Jacob Zuma said, “I truthfully never wanted to be president.” It was April 2007—a time when he looked poised to either step up into the office once held by Nelson Mandela or step off the political stage for good, undone by a looming trial for corruption. Zuma was then in the midst of a high-stakes political battle with his former comrade in arms, President Thabo Mbeki—a struggle that would rip apart the African National Congress, scramble South Africa’s politics, and threaten the stability of the young democracy. But you wouldn’t have known any of this from Zuma’s imperturbable evenness. It said something about the culture of his party—particularly the emphasis ANC leaders place on the value of collective leadership and their disdain for American-style campaigning—that he’d begun our conversations with the idea that he harbored no personal ambition. And it said something about Zuma, too, that he would portray himself as a reluctant standard-bearer even as he was pressing the party’s allies on the left—the Youth League, trade-union federation, and Communist Party—to intensify a campaign that would ultimately place him in charge of the largest economy in Africa.
Zuma is a large-boned man with a shaved, bullet-shaped head. He carries himself in the loose-limbed manner of a natural politician, and the edges of his mouth regularly turn up in a Mona Lisa smile, as if he’s just remembered an old joke. His cheeks are full and his skin unlined; he looks far younger than his 67 years. Tinted wire-rimmed glasses shade his heavy-lidded eyes, so it’s hard to know when he’s pulling your leg, or getting angry at the drift of your questions. He’s famously even-keeled—or chill, as his children say; they’ve never seen him lose his temper. Perhaps it’s not surprising, since he was once the intelligence chief of an underground revolutionary movement, that he’s developed the habit of giving so little away. His middle name, Gedleyihlekisa, means “the one who laughs while he endangers you.”
Zuma’s home in Johannesburg lies in the middle of the block on a dead-end street in a comfortable suburb of the city. It’s a two-story house, like others on the street, surrounded by high security walls. The walls are topped with electric sensors to warn of intruders. Inside them, highly trained agents keep watch from the driveway and the garden. Zuma’s closest supporters, justifiably or not, fear his assassination. His food is prepared only by people he has reason to trust.
The front door opens into a large, spare anteroom. Straight ahead, in the dining room, is an oblong table of polished blond wood around which political strategy has long been planned in late-night meetings. To the right, a wide staircase leads to the bedrooms upstairs. You can trace the trouble Zuma has gotten into in recent years just by considering the floor plan. In 2005, a crack unit of government agents, known as the Scorpions, streamed through the front gate and spread throughout the house, seizing computer hard drives and documents to support the criminal case they’d been building against him for corruption, racketeering, tax evasion, and fraud. To the left as you enter the house is the guest bedroom where, in late 2005, he allegedly raped a woman less than half his age. (He was acquitted in 2006, after a long, grueling, and deeply troubling trial.) On the day I first visited, two of his children—a 14-year-old son by his second wife, who committed suicide in 2000, and a 17-year-old daughter by his third wife, from whom he is now divorced—were doing homework at the long table. They seemed rather blasé about the recent dramatic developments in their father’s life. “It’s only politics,” his daughter told me, echoing a refrain she hears regularly from him.
When Zuma entered the room, he was wearing a bulky green robe, having just come from an evangelical church service where he’d been made an honorary reverend. In the wake of the rape trial, he’d made an effort to cultivate conservative evangelicals. As we sat down to talk, he cautioned me, in the manner of a reproving parent, that I’d made a mistake in coming to see him. I didn’t tell him so, but that was also the opinion of many of my South African friends, who considered him a spent force politically. “I’m not important,” he said. “I’m just a cadre in the movement.” He suggested I come back in the unlikely event he was elected leader.
On the surface, and from a distance, Zuma’s rise toward South Africa’s presidency looks like a case study in national devolution. Nelson Mandela, the country’s first black president, was a lawyer before becoming the world’s most famous political prisoner and the unifying figure behind the peaceful end of apartheid in 1994. Mandela’s successor, in 1999, was Mbeki, a dapper intellectual with a master’s degree in economics from the University of Sussex in Great Britain, and a darling of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Zuma, by contrast, is a former goatherd with no formal schooling who speaks spare, unadorned English. At party rallies, he sings and dances, crooning his signature struggle song, “Awuleth’ Umshini Wami,” or “Bring Me My Machine Gun.” When he first emerged as a possible successor to Mbeki, letters to the editors of local newspapers predicted that he would turn out to be South Africa’s Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean dictator who transformed the shining light of southern Africa into one of the most dysfunctional places on Earth. Members of the business class—black and white—consider him a dangerous populist and a crass rube. But if you followed him out of the city into the countryside, you’d see how he is greeted as a savior among the poor—especially among Zulus, members of the country’s largest ethnic group, who count him as one of their own.
|Watch Zuma's enthusiastic rendition of "Awuleth’ Umshini Wami" at the ANC Youth League's 23rd National Congress|
South Africa appears to be at a pivotal moment. The agreement that ended apartheid 15 years ago gave blacks the right to vote in exchange for a commitment not to alter the basic structure of the country’s economy—no massive redistribution of land or wealth, no nationalizing of the mines. But this trade-off set the stage for a bedeviling challenge that the government hasn’t yet resolved: how to reconcile incongruent, coexisting worlds—one white and rich, the other black and poor.
A centrist macroeconomic policy pursued under Mandela and Mbeki stabilized the currency in the mid-1990s, ensuring South Africa wouldn’t turn swiftly into another of the continent’s failed states. And the lifting of international sanctions after the demise of apartheid provided a burst of growth. That growth, along with affirmative action and other measures, helped propel millions of blacks into the middle class. But for the vast majority of the mostly poor, mostly black followers of the ANC, the legacy of apartheid—poor education, bad health care, separate development—remains. By 2007, with the world economy slowing, the national unemployment rate was running above 25 percent—for young workers, above 60 percent. Today, the chasm between rich and poor remains among the widest in the world, and the HIV epidemic has killed 2 million South Africans. Among many blacks, patience with the government has given way to pointed questions about how and when political equality will translate into economic gain.
Against this backdrop, Jacob Zuma has emerged as an unlikely tribune for a rebellion inside the ANC on behalf of the left. Increasing numbers of ANC members and rural supporters have latched on to him in the belief that with his humble background, Zuma will make good on the party’s 1994 promise of a “better life for all.” Party strategists argue that he could turn out to be a unifying figure more like Mandela than like Mugabe, and that he is the best hope for reassuring the vast majority of black South Africans that the party of liberation has not forsaken them.