The right man for the job?

South Africa’s new president is more widely known for scandal than for any thoughts on how to stop the country entering its first recession in two decades. Luckily, he may be leaving the faltering economy to the professionals


Immensely popular with the country’s black majority, President Jacob Zuma will need to fight off the taint of corruption that hangs around him if the country’s economic affairs are to be turned around.

Described as unsuitable to lead South Africa by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it seems that the electorate thought otherwise – Zuma is South Africa’s fourth black president. A self-taught Zulu farm boy (he only learnt to read and write while in prison on Robben Island) with an instinct for trouble, he has attracted many epithets during his controversial life, but dull is not one of them. His signature tune, after all, is called “Bring Me My Machine Gun”.

Among his more attractive qualities are his ability to connect with the downtrodden and his irrepressibility. But this is overtaken by a longer list of unattractive qualities and serious gaffes, such as his tendency to shoot from the hip, his dislike of gays and his casual attitude towards AIDS.

He has faced corruption charges, and when on trial for raping a 31-year-old family friend, his admission that, despite knowing the woman was HIV positive he had not used a condom, opting instead for a “vigorous” shower, made him a laughing stock – particularly as he was head of the country’s National AIDS Council at the time. There are many who regard Zuma’s presidency with trepidation. He has advocated tackling criminality by reintroducing the death penalty and has said that legal aid should be denied to those accused of serious crimes. His international reputation has been tarnished by alleged links to Mbokodo, the disciplinary arm of the ANC which is said to have been involved in torturing those who stepped out of line.

Yet the allegations surrounding Zuma have done nothing to diminish his popularity among the grass roots due to his impoverished childhood and the fact that he is a Zulu, the country’s biggest ethnic group (Mandela and Mbeke both had Xhosa backgrounds). His political awakening came when he joined the ANC’s armed wing when he was 16, and a 10 year prison sentence on Robben Island and deportation to Mozambique followed. He returned to South Africa from exile in Zambia after Mandela’s release in 1990.

When Mbeki became Mandela’s successor, Zuma became deputy president of both the party and the country and, somewhat ironically, head of the National Aids Council. But relations between the two quickly began to unravel, particularly as Zuma’s ebullient behaviour contrasted so heavily with Mbeki’s. Zuma’s alleged involvement in a number of corruption scandals also brought unnecessary – and unfavourable – attention onto Mbeki’s leadership.
In June 2005 Zuma’s former financial adviser Schabir Shaik was jailed for trying to solicit a bribe on his behalf from a French weapons company in an arms procurement deal. By October of that year, Zuma himself had been charged with 16 counts of corruption linked with the arms deal.

At an all-time low, he turned to trade unionists, the Communist Party and the ANC Youth League – all those who had been alienated by Mbeki’s conservatism – insisting he was the victim of a political conspiracy. As a result, he was able to turn the tables on Mbeki, becoming president of the ANC in 2007. Mbeki resigned as president of South Africa last year. All the charges against Zuma were dropped earlier in April prior to the election, although the fact he has never been acquitted means a cloud of suspicion hangs over him. His woeful views on AIDS and homosexuality are also major concerns, particularly as South Africa has the world’s largest HIV/AIDS population.

As Zuma celebrated his victory, it was left to Archbishop Desmond Tutu to capture the country’s ambivalence towards its new leader. Describing his presidency as a hiccup, he insisted South Africa had survived worse. “It will clear our throats and we’ll be okay, we’ll sing again,” he said.