Last October, 10 months after becoming chief of the ANC, Zuma visited the U.S. as heir apparent to the South African presidency. Within days of the world financial meltdown the previous month, South Africa’s currency had weakened and its stock exchange had slumped, causing worry among international investors. Under a Zuma administration, the party’s expansive plans—for everything from poverty alleviation in rural areas to building new stadiums for the 2010 World Cup—would rely on high levels of foreign investment. So Zuma had flown across the ocean partly to ensure that fears of a leftward leap by the ANC wouldn’t shake America’s political and financial elite.
On his final day in the country, he barnstormed across Wall Street, meeting privately with investment bankers and editors at The Wall Street Journal. I caught up with him in a stuffy meeting room at the Harvard Club in Midtown, where a small group of powerful investors was gathered around a polished wood table to get a closer look at the new leader. Zuma, dressed in a conservative dark suit with the conventional red power tie, turned his palms up, as if to assure them that he’d come unarmed. Frank Wisner, then a vice chairman of the insurance giant AIG, drove right to the central concern in the room: Since the South African left—the trade unions and the Communist Party—had supported Zuma’s candidacy for the presidency, how would he “respond to pressure to change economic policy”?
“We are not going to change policy,” Zuma said, looking straight at Wisner and explaining, not for the first time that morning, that collective decision-making in the party meant that government policy was long settled. South Africa needed “balance,” he said, pushing his belly into the table. The economy would continue to require active intervention because the market still hadn’t corrected for historic patterns of race and class bias.
Mbeki’s administration had helped 12 million poor South Africans by providing social-security grants, Zuma said. “But we want to create a developmental state, not a welfare state.” The new government would revamp the education system, emphasize skills training, and quickly generate 5 million new jobs. Zuma hesitated for a moment, studying his palms, before continuing. Only a limited amount of time remained, he said, to make sure that the political liberation of 1994 would be followed, however belatedly, by the achievement of material freedom. Otherwise, the country might blow up. The persistence of vast inequality, he said softly, looking directly at Wisner, was “a time bomb.”