Since 1994, Zuma has climbed through a series of political posts. In 1999, when Mbeki succeeded Mandela as president of South Africa, Zuma joined the cabinet as deputy president, at his comrade’s invitation. The two men were close; one former official, in a particularly graphic analogy, said they were “like tongue and saliva.” But from the moment Zuma came within one step of the presidency, his relationship with Mbeki began to unravel. The breach between them, which Zuma himself presents as a befuddling mystery, appears to have been precipitated partly by the ordinary stress of governing, partly by the paranoia that both men seem to share, and partly by the inevitable tensions within a diverse party, whose main unifying goal—ending apartheid—had been achieved as soon as it took power.
If those factors provided the conditions for the rupture, though, a $5 billion series of contracts to purchase military equipment, dating back to 1999, provided the catalyst. The arms deal was riddled with fraud, bribes, and kickbacks to the ANC. Subsequent investigations implicated a number of wheeler-dealers among the new elite, including a close friend of Zuma’s, the Durban businessman Schabir Shaik. Shaik’s older brothers had served in the resistance with Zuma, and Shaik had been a funnel for funds to the party while it operated underground. He became Zuma’s chief benefactor after Zuma returned from exile, helping him through difficult financial times, as other businessmen had done for other leaders. Most returning ANC heroes came out of prison or exile with tremendous family obligations, no small measure of guilt for having neglected their spouses and children, and few opportunities to make money. Businessmen hoping to ingratiate themselves with the newly powerful bought homes and paid expenses for top party officials, including Nelson Mandela. In this way, the kind of necessarily secretive arrangements that had been used to fund the revolutionary movement shaded, in the new dispensation, into a more familiar story involving money and politics.
In 2005, Shaik was convicted on a range of charges, including soliciting a bribe from a French arms supplier on Zuma’s behalf. On a live, national TV broadcast, the judge sentenced Shaik to 15 years in prison and detailed the many large payments he had made to Zuma. Zuma argued, as Shaik had, that the funds were simply loans and gifts to help support his family and his charity, not a quid pro quo. But Mbeki fired Zuma in a humiliating public address to the parliament, and corruption charges were brought against him shortly afterward—charges that would dog Zuma until just this spring, when they were finally abandoned under a cloud of political suspicion.
An entirely different kind of scandal broke a couple months later, in December 2005. A 31-year-old woman, the daughter of a former comrade, filed a charge of rape. Zuma claimed she’d been put up to it by his enemies. He spent early 2006 preparing for the rape trial. After a two-month proceeding, Zuma was acquitted—the sex deemed consensual—but he did himself no favors during his testimony. On the stand, he revealed antediluvian ideas about women (if a Zulu woman dressed provocatively, it meant she wanted sex, and it was a Zulu man’s duty to satisfy her) and the triumph of impulse over judgment (he’d known the accuser was HIV-positive but had not had a condom on hand; he’d showered afterward in an attempt to protect himself). A cartoonist known as Zapiro drew him with a large, reptilian head with a showerhead implanted in it.
Zuma’s more reptilian qualities—his cold-bloodedness and single-minded determination—may be what saved his political career. During my November 2007 visit to his homestead, I spoke with one of his brothers, Mike. As we stood by an enclosure where an ox had been slaughtered earlier in the day, Mike told me that his brother was clever, and should never be counted out. He said that from an early age, Zuma had been a masterful practitioner of traditional Zulu stick fighting. His distinctive technique had been to forego the formalities and hold his stick casually, as if he was on a lark. He’d turn away from his opponent, crack a joke, and smile. When it was least expected, he would sweep the other boy off his feet. Stick fighting is essentially a test of balance, not brute strength, in which one turns an adversary’s lunging attacks back on him. That seemed a neat enough description for what Zuma set out to do to Mbeki shortly after the president fired him.
“I knew that in order to meet this, I’ve got to move very carefully … I did not get excited,” Zuma told me. He searched out allies in the trade unions, Communist Party, and Youth League, and among the regional ANC officials he’d worked beside over the years—people who felt that Mbeki had not done nearly enough for workers and the rural poor. Zuma offered himself as an alternative, although he had never publicly broken with Mbeki’s policies, and his allies began attacking the president by name, accusing him of being in thrall to business interests and stabbing his longtime comrade in the back. Harking back to the politicized trials that had sent ANC movement leaders to prison under apartheid, Zuma publicly floated conspiracy theories about the charges against him—which his supporters echoed and amplified. Across the country, they began a branch-by-branch drive to flood local party chapters with younger, more militant new members engaged in a mass campaign to “take back” the ANC.
“It was a very tight campaign,” one of Zuma’s key strategists told me, making it sound like a military operation. And it was remarkably effective. The grievances of the young and the poor, given a little nourishment from the venerable party that had liberated South Africa, grew quickly in volume. Outside the Johannesburg High Court, over the course of Zuma’s rape trial, thousands of his supporters rallied each day, some of them chanting “Burn the bitch!,” others wearing T-shirts that read 100% Zulu Boy, and most of them railing against Mbeki and the shadowy forces they believed to be behind the accusation. Support for Zuma inside the party surged, and what one leader called “a tsunami” building up on his behalf broke into the open.
On December 16, 2007, at a national convention of the ANC, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma sat side by side on a dais under a large tent near the town of Polokwane, which once served as a haven for guerrillas crossing into South Africa from neighboring states. Above them hung a huge banner that read ADVANCING IN UNITY TOWARDS 2012, but everything about the tableau was artifice. Each man had allowed his name to be placed in nomination for the party’s presidency, the first time in half a century the post had been contested. Mbeki is a short, thin man with an elfin aspect, and on the day the convention opened he was wearing a simple blue knit shirt and khaki pants. Looking out on the rowdy delegates from across the country, he raised his overgrown white eyebrows, as if surprised to find himself in such company. He had more than a year left to serve as president of the republic, but he knew that if he lost control of the party machinery at this convention, his power as head of state would also swiftly drain away.
At the moment, Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota, the party’s chairman and an ally of Mbeki’s, was inadvertently helping Zuma demonstrate how quickly that could happen. As Lekota spoke, Zuma considered him idly, as he might track a herded goat. Zuma’s supporters jeered, rotating their hands in rapid circles as though they were fans at a soccer game signaling for a change of players. Twice, when it seemed as though the convention was about to tip into chaos, Zuma nodded his head slightly toward an ally, Secretary-General Kgalema Motlanthe. Each time, Motlanthe rose, waving Lekota aside and taking the podium, as the shouting died down and the 4,000 assembled party members jostled back to order.
Three days later, with ballots cast and votes counted, Zuma had beaten Mbeki by a wide margin—2,329 to 1,505. At the announcement, the crowd erupted into pandemonium. Onstage, the six seats for top officials were now filled by Zuma and five of his supporters. Swathed in green and gold, the colors of the ANC, Zuma glanced to his right, where his just-defeated rival sat in a heap on a metal folding chair, looking like an old umbrella broken in the wind.
For Mbeki, the worst was yet to come. In September 2008, a judge tossed out the charges of corruption against Zuma and in his lengthy decision gave support to the idea, originally put forward by Zuma’s lawyers, that the president and his cabinet had meddled in the case. This decision was later reversed on appeal, but not before the ANC National Executive Committee decided to withdraw Mbeki from the presidency. Rather than provoke a constitutional crisis, Mbeki resigned. His deputy president and a number of ministers departed with him. (A caretaker president was appointed to serve until the April election.) In the wake of the president’s resignation, Mbeki’s acolytes, including Terror Lekota, announced their intention to break away and form a new political party. Youth leaders around the country began calling them cockroaches or, worse, askaris and impimpis—the same words that in the apartheid years had described traitors and spies within the movement.
The day after the president was ousted, I reached Zuma by telephone at his home in Johannesburg. He said he found it sad that his one-time friend would not be allowed to finish his term. Sad or not, it was Zuma who’d personally delivered the news to Mbeki that he was about to be removed from office. “But then,” Zuma noted, “you know that he did much worse to me.”