South Africa at the Crossroads?
April 21, 2009, 13:39
Filed under: Politics, Southern Africa | Tags: , , , , ,


Tomorrow one of Africa’s most democratic countries goes to the polls to install a new leader.  And while there’s little doubt as to the winner of South Africa’s fifth elections since the end of minority rule in 1995, the “million rand question” is by how much Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC) will win.


On Sunday the ANC held its final campaign rally in Johannesburg.  More than 100,000 people filled the 60,000 seat football stadium, which had to provide extra seating in an overflow venue as party supporters flocked to listen to the next South African president celebrate his decisive victory.  Even Nelson Mandela, so frail he rarely makes public appearances, attended the rally, showing his support for Jacob Zuma.


At the height of his address, Zuma launched into the song he penned during the anti-apartheid years:  “Bring Me My Machine Gun”.  His supporters sang with him, cheering and chanting as Zuma began a war dance.  This morning a clip on Sky News shows Zuma, in full Zulu regalia, leaping around wildy before stumbling and falling over backwards.  The Daily Telegraph describes Zuma’s war dance as “a unique dance, again of his own invention, whose movements suggested that Mr Zuma was trying to scoop ants from the floor and imitate a bird in flight.”


The dance may inspire a few chuckles, and the words of the song may be unnerving for many South African citizens… but the reality of this election is the power Zuma will have should he win more than two-thirds of the country’s vote.  A win of this margin would give Zuma and his party the power to change the country’s constitution.  While he has sought to reassure his detractors this is not his intention, his statements about South Africa’s highest judicial body seem to indicate the opposite.


He points out the ruling party has never sought to change the constitution during the 15 years it has ruled South Africa, reaffirming the party’s “commitment to constitutional governance, the independence of the judiciary, respect for due process and the rule of law.”   Unfortunately he then says: “like all institutions” the judiciary is “expected to undergo transformation“.  Hardly a statement to encourage confidence, but sadly this kind of contradiction seems to typify so many African leaders.


Apart from his role in South Africa’s liberation movement, Zuma’s background is not one that would see him holding public office in many western countries.  Born 67 years ago, Jacob Zuma’s family was so poor he did not go to school.  He was a powerful force within the ANC during the struggle for liberation, and during the ten years he was incarcerated on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela he taught himself to read and write.  He served as vice-president under South Africa’s second president, Thabo Mbeki, but was fired in 2005 after alleged involvement in a massive arms deal.


He was also charged with rape, and during the court case admitted to having consensual sex with an HIV-positive family friend, stating publically he showered after the encounter to minimise risk of infection.  He was acquitted of rape charges, but became a subject of much derision and is currently suing one of South Africa’s top cartoonists for producing an unflattering satirical cartoon of him.


Zuma is a polygamist, and currently has three wives and 18 children.  He is divorced from South Africa’s current foreign affairs minister, and the mother of five of his children committed suicide in 2000.  He has paid lobola for three fiancées; a Swazi princess, a member of his tribal clan who is the mother of two of his children and a third woman with whom he has a son. 


Zuma is a man of contradictions.  Although he’s been an object of ridicule, he’s also a man of enormous charisma for his party and his followers.  He’s not a typical politician by Western standards, but in Africa he’s a father figure, often compared to the warlike Zulu kings so prominent in Southern Africa’s history.   On the issue of Zimbabwe and the architect of South Africa’s northern neighbour’s descent in chaos, Zuma is again inconsistent.  He has praised Mugabe as a liberator and hero, but more recently has criticised the way Mugabe has destroyed his country and its democracy.


There’s a lot expected of Jacob Zuma.  He will be in control of Africa’s richest country, tasked with improving the lives of the people voting him into power.  He will be expected to lead the nation AND the continent through the current global recession, as well as tackle issues like crime, AIDS and corruption in his own country.  Then there’s the Zimbabwe scenario, with that country’s refugees putting a massive strain on South Africa’s social and economic resources.


South Africa, Africa and the world will be watching to see which road Mr Zuma chooses to follow… and hoping it’s not the one Mugabe referred to in 1962, when discussing how his party would achieve majority rule:


It may be necessary to use methods other than constitutional ones



1 Comment so far
Leave a comment

On a personal note, I’m glad you’re writing in this blog again.

In spite of all her problems, your love for Africa and her people shines through; you’re making me fall in love with them, too.

All I can do is pray Zuma doesn’t fall into the destructive, power-hungry trap Mugabe did.

Comment by Andra M.

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