Jacob Zuma: A Maverick in Pursuit of South Africa’s Presidency

by Sheyi Oriade

Only an alien, newly arrived to planet earth from outer space, will be ignorant of the fact that black people love to dance and love to sing and do both with distinction. And of the multitudes of black people on the planet who love to gyrate to the natural, supernatural, and artificial rhythms which resound within and without their beings, South Africans, often do so more than most. And this they do with majestic aplomb, and often regardless of their circumstances. For even during those dreadful days of apartheid, they sang and danced in defiance of their oppressors and in hope of the emergence of a better day. And as one ancient recorded in his mystic wisdom aeons ago; ‘to the dancer belongs the universe.’

As far as politicians go, there are not many who can sing or dance or to who belong the universe; but there is to be found within these ranks, insofar as singing and dancing is concerned, a notable exception, in South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. Jacob Zuma is the colourful and controversial president of the African National Congress (ANC); and also a one time deputy president of South Africa. Charismatic and larger than life; he can sing, he can dance, and even choreograph a crowd, in a way that would have been pleasing to the late soul brother number one – James Brown.

All things being equal – which they rarely ever are – Jacob Zuma is widely expected to become South Africa’s next president. That is, as far as the democratic principle of one man one vote is concerned. And the numbers seem overwhelmingly in his favour. So he should be a shoo-in for the presidency in elections next year. But things are hardly ever that straight forward with Jacob Zuma. So he still has many rivers to cross and mountains to surmount before he reaches his political Promised Land.

Not surprisingly for a man of Jacob Zuma’s controversial nature, there has been more than a whiff of scandal about him. Not long ago now, he was accused, tried, and acquitted of having raped the daughter of a friend. Who as it turns out was HIV positive and with whom he had unprotected sexual congress. Although he won judgement in that case, his personal judgment was called into question. But Jacob Zuma is not larger than life for nothing. With a wave of a dismissive hand he brushed aside any doubts about his personal judgment; explaining that after his intimate relations with the woman, he took a shower with medicated soap, and so there was nothing more to it.

It was the sort of unbelievable response that only a maverick like Jacob Zuma could have come up with and still retain his political relevance. But that said; he is no ordinary politician. He has his heart and fingers on the pulse of the people of his nation. Many of whom are poor and disproportionately so. These people continue to suffer from the residual effects of years of abuse and neglect by the apartheid regime. The deleterious effects of which are manifest in their lack of adequate education, skills, and training; serious deficiencies which put them at a competitive disadvantage in their nation’s economy.

For these people, political emancipation has yet to yield the desired concomitant benefits of economic prosperity. Things are beginning to change, but ever so slowly, and it will take years, if not generations to offset the inequalities of the apartheid years.

So for the many poor in South Africa, it is no surprise that they believe that it is only someone who understands their plight that can help them out of their dire economic situation. And it is in Jacob Zuma that they – rightly or wrongly – have identified their champion. Madiba Mandela, a true champion of his people, but whose presidency was largely symbolic; with little expected of it in terms of concrete deliverables. These expectations were to be placed upon President Thabo Mbeki’s government. But for some reason, President Mbeki, has come to be seen, at least in the estimation of these people, as being too aloof and detached from the reality of their suffering.

This explains in large measure their reposal of faith in Jacob Zuma. In their estimation, he not only speaks their ‘language,’ but also sings their songs and does their dances, and has the common touch. His earthy style resonates with them. Their demonstration of confidence in him was underlined by their overwhelming endorsement of his candidacy in the last ANC presidential elections. Elections in which, he trounced President Mbeki in resounding fashion. It was quite a feat. For rarely ever is an incumbent president defeated in a party election by such a candidate.

But President Mbeki – trounced or not – has a reputation for being an intelligent and wily man. And he has said in reference to Jacob Zuma; that it will take more than an ability to sing or dance to win power and govern in South Africa. From this sentiment alone, it is clear that there is not much love lost between them. Their political paths no longer intersect; in fact they now collide. It is perhaps for these reasons that recent attempts to revive corruption charges against Jacob Zuma are thought to be politically motivated. For if a trial does take place, Zuma’s ambitions to become president are practically dead in the water.

His many supporters, suspicious of the motives and the timing of attempts to revive the corruption charges, threaten to make South Africa ungovernable, if his ambition is not allowed to flourish. I hope that some accommodation can be reached between those at the top of the ANC, in order to prevent South Africa’s descent into anarchy. There must be wise men and women in the ANC to prevent such an occurrence.

Given President Mbeki’s antipathy towards him and his ambition, Jacob Zuma has taken to adopting opposite views to him on a number of issues. He has been swift and unequivocal in his condemnation of President Mugabe and the situation in Zimbabwe. He has also taken to expressing concern at the level of ‘white poverty’ in South Africa. All of course, are positions he has adopted to assure influential whites and whites in general, within and without South Africa, that he is a man with whom they can do business. He is seeking to become all things to all men in typical political fashion.

But for all his idiosyncrasies, Jacob Zuma evokes in me, and for totally non- political reasons, nostalgic memories of times past. His surname reminds me of the central character in Peter Abrahams’ excellent novel ‘Mine Boy’ ‘Xuma.’ No doubt, this association of factual and fictional personalities is due to the nearness in the spelling of their names; and the fact that the ‘Mine Boy’ story is based in South Africa. ‘Xuma’ from the north; was a stranger in the dark, who arrives at Malay Camp, at night in search of a better day; but is to experience mixed fortunes in his quest. He was to be unlucky in love. As the object of his affections ‘Eliza’ was far too scarred psychologically by the effects of apartheid, to be able to accept the idea, or the love, of a black boyfriend.

If Zuma from Kwa-Zulu Natal is to fare better than ‘Xuma’ from the north, in the attainment of the object of his affection; South Africa’s presidency. He will have to change his ways and begin to comport himself in a presidential manner. Such change will have to involve a change in his song and dance routine; no more can he afford to be seen singing and dancing to the words of his favourite and popular liberation song from the days of the struggle:

‘Give me my machine gun…’

Rather, he will now have to start singing and dancing to a new song, which begins:

‘Give me your votes …’

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