Zuma followed his half brother into the ANC in the late 1950s. Dreams of resistance were already “in the basket,” he told me, gesturing toward his own head—placed there at an early age by stories of the Bambatha War, a 1906 uprising that marks the last sustained combat between white militias and Zulu-speaking people, and ended in a one-sided slaughter of blacks. Two survivors had lived out their days in Zuma’s village, and he remembered sitting long into the night, as a boy, listening to their tales of battle. “I then understood that the white man had actually taken the rights, and the land, of the black man,” he told me.
As a teen, he moved to a settlement outside Durban, where his mother found work as a maid. There, he began attending informal liberation schools set up by trade unionists and the ANC. In class, young activists soaked up what they could about national freedom movements sweeping to power all over Africa in the 1960s.
Around this time, Nelson Mandela was challenging the ANC’s commitment to the principle of nonviolence. A small group of boys including Zuma took up Mandela’s side of the argument. They’d come to admire the example of the Mau Mau guerrillas, who were responsible for a particularly bloody campaign to drive white settlers out of Kenya. The boys decided one day that they should launch a similar rebellion. They stashed bush knives in the hills and planned to take them into the city center one Saturday night to launch a sneak attack.
The plan was straightforward enough: “We’d get there on a Saturday, unpack, and start butchering everybody,” Zuma recalled. “Once they called the police, we would disappear. We would run off to a hiding place to conduct the war.” On the verge of carrying out their plan, the boys sent an emissary to get approval from ANC elders—who swiftly and emphatically shut down the plot. When Zuma told me this, he shrugged his shoulders as if it were nothing but an example of overzealous youth. But it struck me that periodic recklessness, reined in by the collective leadership of the ANC, has traced the narrative of Zuma’s life.
In his early 20s, Zuma was arrested, along with a group of other militants, while attempting to leave the country. Tried and convicted for plotting to overthrow the white regime, he was sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island—“the University of Robben Island,” his friends like to say—where he learned how to read and write in English and studied politics, partly under the guidance of Thabo Mbeki’s father, Govan Mbeki, a Marxist scholar. A cell mate, Ebrahim Ebrahim, remembered Zuma as an imaginative guy who eased the anguish and boredom of prison life by spinning tall tales and teaching his comrades traditional Zulu dances. At the time, Zuma, under the influence of comrades who were “a bit ultra-leftist,” espoused a down-the-line pro-Soviet orthodoxy, Ebrahim said. But despite their ideological differences, Ebrahim later served Zuma as an adviser and supported his bid for the presidency. He described Zuma during his prison years as a world-class listener with a canny understanding of human behavior—and a good leader, because he knew how to assuage hard feelings arising from political arguments.
After his 10-year sentence, Zuma came off Robben Island without having received a single visitor, by his own request. He returned to Nkandla and married Khumalo after promising her that he would steer clear of politics. But he soon resumed working in the underground armed wing of the ANC; within two years, he was forced into exile to escape arrest. He lived for more than 14 years in Swaziland, Mozambique, and Zambia, overseeing the military training of other South African exiles and rising to the post of ANC intelligence chief. It was a grinding, dangerous existence. The movement was riddled with spies reporting to the South African government. Zuma was part of an effort, called Mbokodo (crushing boulder), to identify and eliminate impimpis and askaris, as the spies and traitors were known, in part through a series of brutal interrogations and summary executions. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission later found the ANC “guilty of gross violations of human rights.” Zuma generally refuses to discuss this period.
Although Zuma devoted himself to the armed struggle, he was instrumental in setting the stage for the settlement that was negotiated in 1993 and hailed around the world. In the years leading up to that agreement, he and Mbeki were an impressive pair—one representing the party’s military might, the other its technocratic skill. Together, they dispelled the fear, among representatives of the ruling National Party, that ANC leaders would continue to pose a revolutionary menace after apartheid ended. By then, the party’s inner circle, including Mandela, Mbeki, and Zuma, understood that the world had changed; the Soviet bloc had come undone and socialist experiments elsewhere in Africa had failed. The party leaders feared that if they stuck to antiquated dogma, they might sink the hope for a new South Africa. When Zuma returned to the country in 1990, he followed the lead of Mbeki, renouncing his long-time membership in the South African Communist Party. Although struggle-era rhetoric remained embedded in party discourse, Zuma cast his lot with those who, like Mbeki and Mandela, didn’t think the ANC’s “National Democratic Revolution” was necessarily an interim step toward socialism.