Jacob’s Ladder

Jacob Zuma is a former goatherd, a master of traditional Zulu stick-fighting, a resistance hero, a one-time spymaster, a graceful dancer, and the father of some 20 children. He has been tried for rape and indicted for corruption, racketeering, and fraud. He has been called the next Mandela and the next Mugabe, a black Jesus and a crass rube. By the time you read this, he will almost certainly be the new president of South Africa. Here is the story of his sometimes troubling rise—and what it portends for the future of his country.

We were about to finish tea when Jacob Zuma said, “I truthfully never wanted to be president.” It was April 2007—a time when he looked poised to either step up into the office once held by Nelson Mandela or step off the political stage for good, undone by a looming trial for corruption. Zuma was then in the midst of a high-stakes political battle with his former comrade in arms, President Thabo Mbeki—a struggle that would rip apart the African National Congress, scramble South Africa’s politics, and threaten the stability of the young democracy. But you wouldn’t have known any of this from Zuma’s imperturbable evenness. It said something about the culture of his party—particularly the emphasis ANC leaders place on the value of collective leadership and their disdain for American-style campaigning—that he’d begun our conversations with the idea that he harbored no personal ambition. And it said something about Zuma, too, that he would portray himself as a reluctant standard-bearer even as he was pressing the party’s allies on the left—the Youth League, trade-union federation, and Communist Party—to intensify a campaign that would ultimately place him in charge of the largest economy in Africa.

Zuma is a large-boned man with a shaved, bullet-shaped head. He carries himself in the loose-limbed manner of a natural politician, and the edges of his mouth regularly turn up in a Mona Lisa smile, as if he’s just remembered an old joke. His cheeks are full and his skin unlined; he looks far younger than his 67 years. Tinted wire-rimmed glasses shade his heavy-lidded eyes, so it’s hard to know when he’s pulling your leg, or getting angry at the drift of your questions. He’s famously even-keeled—or chill, as his children say; they’ve never seen him lose his temper. Perhaps it’s not surprising, since he was once the intelligence chief of an underground revolutionary movement, that he’s developed the habit of giving so little away. His middle name, Gedleyihlekisa, means “the one who laughs while he endangers you.”

Zuma’s home in Johannesburg lies in the middle of the block on a dead-end street in a comfortable suburb of the city. It’s a two-story house, like others on the street, surrounded by high security walls. The walls are topped with electric sensors to warn of intruders. Inside them, highly trained agents keep watch from the driveway and the garden. Zuma’s closest supporters, justifiably or not, fear his assassination. His food is prepared only by people he has reason to trust.

The front door opens into a large, spare anteroom. Straight ahead, in the dining room, is an oblong table of polished blond wood around which political strategy has long been planned in late-night meetings. To the right, a wide staircase leads to the bedrooms upstairs. You can trace the trouble Zuma has gotten into in recent years just by considering the floor plan. In 2005, a crack unit of government agents, known as the Scorpions, streamed through the front gate and spread throughout the house, seizing computer hard drives and documents to support the criminal case they’d been building against him for corruption, racketeering, tax evasion, and fraud. To the left as you enter the house is the guest bedroom where, in late 2005, he allegedly raped a woman less than half his age. (He was acquitted in 2006, after a long, grueling, and deeply troubling trial.) On the day I first visited, two of his children—a 14-year-old son by his second wife, who committed suicide in 2000, and a 17-year-old daughter by his third wife, from whom he is now divorced—were doing homework at the long table. They seemed rather blasé about the recent dramatic developments in their father’s life. “It’s only politics,” his daughter told me, echoing a refrain she hears regularly from him.

When Zuma entered the room, he was wearing a bulky green robe, having just come from an evangelical church service where he’d been made an honorary reverend. In the wake of the rape trial, he’d made an effort to cultivate conservative evangelicals. As we sat down to talk, he cautioned me, in the manner of a reproving parent, that I’d made a mistake in coming to see him. I didn’t tell him so, but that was also the opinion of many of my South African friends, who considered him a spent force politically. “I’m not important,” he said. “I’m just a cadre in the movement.” He suggested I come back in the unlikely event he was elected leader.

On the surface, and from a distance, Zuma’s rise toward South Africa’s presidency looks like a case study in national devolution. Nelson Mandela, the country’s first black president, was a lawyer before becoming the world’s most famous political prisoner and the unifying figure behind the peaceful end of apartheid in 1994. Mandela’s successor, in 1999, was Mbeki, a dapper intellectual with a master’s degree in economics from the University of Sussex in Great Britain, and a darling of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Zuma, by contrast, is a former goatherd with no formal schooling who speaks spare, unadorned English. At party rallies, he sings and dances, crooning his signature struggle song, “Awuleth’ Umshini Wami,” or “Bring Me My Machine Gun.” When he first emerged as a possible successor to Mbeki, letters to the editors of local newspapers predicted that he would turn out to be South Africa’s Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean dictator who transformed the shining light of southern Africa into one of the most dysfunctional places on Earth. Members of the business class—black and white—consider him a dangerous populist and a crass rube. But if you followed him out of the city into the countryside, you’d see how he is greeted as a savior among the poor—especially among Zulus, members of the country’s largest ethnic group, who count him as one of their own.

Watch Zuma's enthusiastic rendition of "Awuleth’ Umshini Wami" at the ANC Youth League's 23rd National Congress

South Africa appears to be at a pivotal moment. The agreement that ended apartheid 15 years ago gave blacks the right to vote in exchange for a commitment not to alter the basic structure of the country’s economy—no massive redistribution of land or wealth, no nationalizing of the mines. But this trade-off set the stage for a bedeviling challenge that the government hasn’t yet resolved: how to reconcile incongruent, coexisting worlds—one white and rich, the other black and poor.

A centrist macroeconomic policy pursued under Mandela and Mbeki stabilized the currency in the mid-1990s, ensuring South Africa wouldn’t turn swiftly into another of the continent’s failed states. And the lifting of international sanctions after the demise of apartheid provided a burst of growth. That growth, along with affirmative action and other measures, helped propel millions of blacks into the middle class. But for the vast majority of the mostly poor, mostly black followers of the ANC, the legacy of apartheid—poor education, bad health care, separate development—remains. By 2007, with the world economy slowing, the national unemployment rate was running above 25 percent—for young workers, above 60 percent. Today, the chasm between rich and poor remains among the widest in the world, and the HIV epidemic has killed 2 million South Africans. Among many blacks, patience with the government has given way to pointed questions about how and when political equality will translate into economic gain.

Against this backdrop, Jacob Zuma has emerged as an unlikely tribune for a rebellion inside the ANC on behalf of the left. Increasing numbers of ANC members and rural supporters have latched on to him in the belief that with his humble background, Zuma will make good on the party’s 1994 promise of a “better life for all.” Party strategists argue that he could turn out to be a unifying figure more like Mandela than like Mugabe, and that he is the best hope for reassuring the vast majority of black South Africans that the party of liberation has not forsaken them.


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.”


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.


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.”


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.”


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.