Zuma likes to say that his character was quarried from the landscape north of the Tugela River. The river’s course marks a rough dividing line between territory once dominated by British colonial forces to the south and the traditional home villages of Zulu-speaking people to the north. South of the Tugela lie sugar-cane plantations, factories, and most of the public universities in what’s now called KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province. In the north, where Zuma grew up, whites are scarce. The area remains desperately poor, with rutted dirt roads, few schools, and sky-high rates of infection for both HIV and tuberculosis.
In 2001, Zuma began construction on a modest homestead there, on top of a ridge near Nkandla. When he needs relief from the hectic pace of life in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban, where he also has homes, he regularly returns to it. “The environment is so calming,” he told me one afternoon in late November 2007, as we wandered through the collection of freshly painted rondavels perched on a gently sloping hillside. “Why should you be a nervous person here?” he murmured, as if asking the question of himself.
Later, from the main house, with its thatched roof and stucco walls, Zuma waved in the direction of the mountains through which he’d herded goats and cattle as a boy. He called the bluffs on the other side of the wide valley a mystical place, the land of “honey and cobras.” He was born to a poor mother in these hills in 1942; his father, a local police sergeant, paid him scant attention. An older half brother (now deceased), who joined the ANC, influenced him most politically among the grown-ups in his life, Zuma said.
We sat in plastic chairs on the porch, looking out over the valley shrouded in mist. While he was talking, a young daughter—one of about 20 children Zuma has fathered with an assortment of wives and mistresses—was brought over to sit on his lap by one of his junior wives; the mother and daughter both live in a rondavel downhill from the main house, which is presided over by Zuma’s first wife, Sizakele Khumalo, a formidable, sharp-tongued woman in her 60s whom Zuma courted when they were teenagers. Polygamy is accepted in Zulu culture and legal in the new South Africa, and Zuma makes no apologies for his full love life. Still, when I asked about his relationship with Khumalo, his eyes welled up. “Do you see this woman? This is my wife—my first wife,” he said. “People look at me, how much I sacrificed. They don’t look at her. She represents women who sacrificed but who are not known. They are in the quiet.”
He sketched the “emotional tale” of their separations—she’d waited for him for the 10 years he spent in prison, and then for 14 more years while he was in exile. She’d suffered a miscarriage shortly after he fled the country, he said, adding: “My heart was bleeding then.” When the police came to harass her during the years of Zuma’s absence, they brought along dogs to threaten her. Yet in all those years they were apart, she never considered breaking up. “My heart wouldn’t allow me to be negative,” Khumalo told me. “I just focused on the fact that he was coming back someday.”
These days, being at his ranch with Khumalo, his brothers and cousins, his children, and other family members helps Zuma “reconnect,” he said. He offered his daughter a slice of grilled beef, pulling it away when she lunged for it until she remembered to hold out both hands politely. “If I can’t identify with this area where I come from, and begin to be too high-flying … I’m like a South African who’s floating in the air.”
This sounded like a considered slap at his rival, Mbeki, who’d appeared, during his service as president, to be more interested in playing a big role on the international stage than in getting to know the country from which he’d been exiled for nearly 30 years. Mbeki himself once characterized his early childhood and life in exile as disconnected, and through most of his presidency, he seldom mentioned his Xhosa heritage. Zuma pointed to the enclosure for his animals, the valley below, the terrain around the house: “This makes me to be on my feet, on the ground—a South African who grew up here in KZN, who is a Zulu with Zulu traditions [and] Zulu values pushed into myself,” he said.
Coming from an ANC leader, this was a rare expression of ethnic pride. During colonial rule and nearly half a century under apartheid, successive white governments exacerbated ethnic differences to keep the black majority fractured. And in the early 1990s, more than 10,000 people died in clashes between followers of the ANC and more-traditional Zulu-speakers allied with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party. Although much of the most vicious fighting in Zuma’s home territory had been among Zulu-speakers, the killing in other parts of the country, especially in townships outside Johannesburg, had fallen along Zulu/non-Zulu lines. The danger of interethnic bloodletting has been a preoccupation of ANC party leaders, who espouse a strict “non-tribalist” policy. But by the time of my visit, in 2007, there were signs of a breakdown on this score within party ranks.
On the street, in public taxis, and in the townships you’d hear people casually denigrating the ANC as the “Xhosa Nostra,” a mafia for Xhosa-speakers (both Mandela and Mbeki are Xhosa-speakers). The public conflict between Mbeki and Zuma certainly played a part in inflaming ethnic tensions. But Zuma dismissed the idea that his unabashed Zulu pride might get in the way of his role as a national figure. “My love of South Africa is not gray, it’s not vague. It’s very specific,” he told me. “It’s in keeping with our Constitution—‘Unity in diversity.’ This is my diversity.”