An autumn sun was drifting toward the horizon like a limp balloon when Zuma and his entourage finally arrived at a rally in the hill country of Limpopo. It was the end of March, a month before the 2009 election, and Zuma had been campaigning ever since I’d seen him in New York. In an open field, people had begun gathering at nine that morning to see him. They were now pressed together by the tens of thousands, and they exploded in a frenzy of cheering and ululation when he came onstage. A young woman toward the front of the crowd, on Zuma’s left, held up a handmade cross, with his image and name at the top and a message painted in uneven letters: BLACK JESUS. Zuma raised his head, clasped his hands together, and bowed in her direction.
Across the country, this outsize love for Zuma was far from universal. As the campaign entered its final weeks, the ANC seemed likely to lose control of the Western Cape province to the Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition party. And in the Eastern Cape, home of Xhosa-speakers, polls indicated that the new party started by Mbeki supporters had made inroads. But in KwaZulu-Natal and several other provinces, the ANC was drawing unprecedented support. In poor townships and in rural communities, the party leader had been cheered just as he was here in Limpopo—as if he were the Messiah.
A few months before, the ANC had convened a series of focus groups of likely voters. Party strategists had listened as anger poured forth, directed toward both the ANC and the government, for the failure to turn lofty plans—for a better education system, the fight against crime, and economic uplift—into reality. “It was scary,” said one of the listeners. But the ANC’s historic role still bound most participants to the party; few planned to vote against it. Regarding Zuma, a racial split was clear: “White people think he’s guilty” of the corruption charges that have dogged him over the years, one of those who observed the focus groups said. “Blacks don’t think so.”
Weeks before the election, Zuma had already appointed a transition team to prepare for his inauguration in May. “You can’t help but feel these people need something to happen yesterday,” he told me the day after the Limpopo rally. “And you need to move … We need to change things if we are going to succeed. We cannot succeed if we continue going at the same pace and with the same methodology.” When I reminded him that he’d promised investors in New York that the party’s economic policy would not change, he cleared his throat and began a disquisition about the difference between necessary adjustments and the changes that might upset foreigners. He turned to fix me with a stare, as if he was suddenly uneasy about the line he was walking. I asked, “Is that change you’re proposing a matter of degree, or a matter of kind?” He shifted in his seat, pausing. “Could be both,” he said.
I recalled the sign that had proclaimed him the “black Jesus,” thinking he might feel chastened by it. But he wasn’t. “It, to me, expressed the high expectations,” he said. “As you know, Jesus was an ultimate, the son of God brought here to help us. I think that this is what they think is going to be happening.”
I mentioned a searing front-page editorial I’d just read in the Sunday Times, the country’s leading weekend newspaper. The piece, “Killing the Dream to Save One Man,” was written by the paper’s editor, Mondli Makhanya, a former ANC activist in Zuma’s home province. He was commenting on the all-out effort by party leaders, including certain cabinet members, to pressure the National Prosecuting Authority not to pursue the corruption charges that had been lingering since 2005. Makhanya accused the ANC of using both “legal and sinister” means to get its leader off the hook. Standing by as Zuma escaped trial meant watching as a “power clique reduces our nation to one of those defective societies that the world pities,” he wrote. Zuma said, a little stiffly, that he hadn’t seen the editorial, so I read out the strongest passages. “The Sunday Times is a propaganda pamphlet,” not a newspaper, he said in a level voice, his expression impassive. The National Prosecuting Authority would ultimately drop its case against Zuma in early April, two weeks before the election.
Zuma’s rise—or the emergence of some other populist like him—was, perhaps, inevitable in South Africa, given the collision of political expectations and economic realities. The question now is whether he’ll be capable of connecting the populist energy he tapped in his campaign to some larger, transformative national purpose, or whether his administration will be characterized by crude redistributive measures and patronage, starting the country down a path that seldom leads to long-term prosperity.
The shirt that Zuma wore to the Limpopo rally was emblazoned with the image of Nelson Mandela. “Long live Jacob Zuma, long live!” the head of the party’s Youth League chanted as he warmed up the crowd. Zuma seemed rested and happy as he took the microphone. The main message in his speech was that the party of liberation had been in power for 15 years, and there were a few “shortcomings and gaps” in the government’s performance. He promised to do things differently by cracking down on corruption and holding officials accountable—comments that would be viewed as tragic irony by South Africa’s urban elite, but seemed to be accepted uncritically here. After he finished speaking, he clenched his fists, arched his arms forward, hunched his body, and began to sing “Bring Me My Machine Gun.” The crowd joined in with surprising force. The enthusiasm seemed weirdly nostalgic, a pining for a time when revolutionary change appeared about to burst, fully realized, into being. Zuma crooned on, swaying from side to side. He was light on his feet, a graceful dancer, but it was jarring, in a country with outlandish rates of violent crime, to see the putative leader rhapsodizing over what he might do with an AK-47.
When his dance was done, Zuma shimmied down the gangway, hands up and palms outstretched, lofted along by the cheers. He and his traveling companions quickly slid into a motorcade of luxury SUVs and BMW sedans. Sirens wailing, they zipped off. The woman with the large cross now had it wedged awkwardly beneath her arm. It struck me that her hero hadn’t explained to her why the ANC government had bungled the fight against AIDS or failed to create widespread opportunities for economic mobility. He hadn’t discussed how, in the midst of a global economic crisis, his government could bring on the dawn now. And he of course hadn’t broached the most pressing question: If he fails, after raising such high expectations, where might people who’d hailed him as their savior turn next?
The class divide in South Africa is increasingly marked by the line between those who ride and those who walk. In Limpopo, Zuma was whisked away by his bodyguards to his comfortable home in Johannesburg. The woman with the cross, who’d told me she really thought he could revolutionize her world, trudged with her large sign through the dusty field to her shack, in a community where people still empty human waste into buckets and have no electricity or running water. For the moment, she clutched the image of her savior, and hung on to an expression of her quasi-religious faith in him.