Zuma’s biography: An asset or a liability?

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A corrupt careerist, a veteran womaniser and a puppet of the left whose trademark  song is “Bring me my machine gun”: Jacob Zuma, the leader of South Africa’s governing African National Congress and very likely the country’s next president, has earned a most unfortunate reputation.

Review by Richard Lapper

But in a timely biography, Jeremy Gordin, a senior South African journalist, shows there is another side to the Zuma story. He does not shirk from detailing Mr Zuma’s recent extensive “legal travails”: the ANC leader in 2006 was found not guilty on a rape charge and could still face action over corruption allegations linked to a complex arms scandal. More than half the book is a useful, although poorly signposted, assessment of this continuing saga.

Gordin though puts these recent controversies in context and shows the 66-year-old Mr Zuma to be a modest, shrewd and fundamentally pragmatic politician. “His life (from about 1975) was the ANC, it was about ‘politics’, not the art or science of government, but competing for position, hitching yourself to the right person, sticking a knife in, and all the rest,” says Gordin.

Born to a family of poor farmers in the predominantly Zulu province of KwaZulu-Natal, Mr Zuma received no formal schooling and gained an education only after joining the ANC at 17. Much of that learning came on Robben Island, where he spent 10 years as a prisoner alongside Nelson Mandela and other leaders. Released in 1974, Mr Zuma headed ANC intelligence.

When apartheid was dismantled in the early 1990s and the ANC’s leaders entered open politics, Mr Zuma was one of its most prized assets, an affable operator who “read people well and rapidly and instinctively knew how to deal with them”. He was a natural choice to negotiate between the ANC and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom party after violent clashes threatened civil war. And after his ally Thabo Mbeki took over the ANC leadership from an ageing Mr Mandela in 1997, Mr Zuma seemed a logical deputy.

Mr Zuma’s difficulties were about to begin, however. He was part of a government that in 1999 opted to spend more than R30bn ($3.2bn, £2.2bn, €2.3bn) on state-of-the-art ships, fighter aircraft and other weaponry, a much criticised deal. Schabir Shaik, a long-time associate, was central to some transactions – setting up local companies that helped one successful supplier – and he seems to have ensured that Mr Zuma derived financial benefits. After a long trial Mr Shaik was in 2005 sentenced to 15 years in prison for soliciting bribes and other payments for Mr Zuma.

Mr Zuma was sacked a few days later. Legal proceedings on corruption charges followed shortly afterwards. A family friend then accused Mr Zuma – who has four wives – of rape. He was cleared but it emerged in court that he had engaged in unprotected sex even though he knew his much younger partner to be HIV positive, a morally catastrophic admission for a public figure in a country suffering an Aids epidemic.

Mr Zuma possibly still faces legal action over the arms deal but the affair has become entangled in a web of political infighting, triggered – in part at least – by a growing rift between Mr Zuma and Mr Mbeki that culminated in Mr Mbeki’s sacking as president four months ago.

Mr Mbeki had been under increasing fire. Although his economic policies engendered stability and growth, trade unionists and many on the left of the ANC argued that too little was being done to improve the lot of the poor. Supporters of Mr Zuma liked his friendliness, tactile style and what Gordin calls a “rare ability to listen properly”. They were apt to dismiss the corruption and rape charges as politically motivated and believed Mr Zuma had benefited less from the arms deal than other leaders. Late in 2007 the party voted to elect him as its leader.

Last September a judge ruled that the state’s corruption case against Mr Zuma had been politically motivated, prompting the ANC to ask Mr Mbeki to leave several months ahead of the end of his scheduled term. That in turn caused the most important division in the organisation for half a century, with Mbeki supporters and other dissidents forming a new party.

Gordin is maybe too generous in his judgments on the moral issues, suggesting that “having discovered that [Mr Zuma and many others] have feet of clay . . . we forget that [they] fought hard in a bitter struggle against the apartheid system”.

But it is hard to disagree with one of the book’s central political conclusions. Mr Zuma has risen because of the “serious” disconnection that emerged under Mr Mbeki between ANC members and the party’s “ruling coterie”. As the party prepares to face its toughest election since the end of apartheid, it will need to ensure those links are rebuilt.

Financial Times

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