Jacob Zuma: not so rotten after all

South Africa’s new president is proving his critics wrong

Not so rotten after all

By now, Jacob Zuma’s South Africa should be careening toward the ranks of failed African states. Eight months ago, after an election anointed him president of the continent’s proudest democracy, editorialists everywhere drew thinly veiled comparisons to Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, who turned Africa’s shining light into a country that rivals only Somalia for sheer dysfunction. Even the most generous assessments had Zuma—once described as an “embarrassment” by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu—shackled by “suspicion” and “doubt” about his shambolic past, and fitness to lead Africa’s biggest economy. Yet under Zuma, South Africa has made pragmatic, positive strides in many areas, including health and the economy.

Early indicators were not good. Zuma, a former goatherd with no formal schooling and a stable of wives, has also twice stood trial. In April, the fraud, corruption and racketeering charges he’d been fighting for almost a decade were dropped, and in 2006, he was acquitted of rape (despite the acquittal, the case revealed “shocking” judgment, according to noted South African journalist Mark Gevisser: “He had unprotected sex with an unstable HIV-positive woman who regarded him as a ‘father.’ ”) To the chattering classes, Zuma seemed to embody the “rottenness” that famed novelist André Brink described as having befallen the country in A Fork in the Road, a memoir published in the weeks running up to the election.

To investors, more worrisome was Zuma’s bolshie rhetoric and close ties to the left: in 2007, the Communist party and COSATU, the powerful trade union, helped Zuma, a Zulu populist promising to lift millions from poverty, secure the leadership of the ANC. Contrasted with his predecessors—the virtuous lawyer Nelson Mandela, who is shown courting foreign investment in the recent movie Invictus, and Thabo Mbeki, a tweedy intellectual with a British graduate degree in economics—the choice of Zuma seemed to foretell a kind of national collapse. That was the storyline, anyway.

Starting with a seamless election and then a well-planned transition, Zuma has, however, confounded critics, instead revealing himself to be an unlikely tribune for good governance. In the first 100 days of his presidency, more bureaucrats were said to have been suspended for corruption than in Thabo Mbeki’s entire 10-year reign. Draft laws to bring more openness to public tendering, and to bar public officials from holding jobs with companies involved in public bodies or seeking business with them, are in the works. And in marked contrast to Mbeki, a dangerous embarrassment on the AIDS file, Zuma has been outspoken about confronting the denialism and stigma attached to the disease—so crucial to the fight against it, as Uganda and Kenya have shown. Indeed, his World AIDS Day speech this month was viewed as a watershed moment for the country. (He also announced a barrage of new HIV and AIDS commitments for South Africa, which has more people living with HIV than anywhere else.)

Where Mbeki was cold and aloof, Zuma, the self-taught son of a Durban maid, oozes warmth and charm. A natural politician, he is famously even-tempered, street-smart and lively—his mouth “permanently set in a Mona Lisa smile, as if he’s just remembered an old joke,” according to a recent profile. With a popular touch, he is more like Mandela, equally at ease with investors and tycoons as with the huge, black underclass—and capable of reassuring the latter that the ANC, the party of liberation, has not abandoned its 1994 promise of a “better life for all.” Yet, like his predecessors, Zuma seems likely to pay lip service to the party’s radical roots while forging a centrist macroeconomic path, a pattern typical of the developing world outside South America.

Pricey election promises like the planned national health insurance program have been quietly shelved. Rather, last month’s budget policy statement announced new spending on World Cup-linked road and rail infrastructure, sorely needed energy plants and moves to ease exchange controls, all of which will encourage growth. Zuma has sacked Jackie Selebi, a former police chief charged with corruption, and the noxious Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, from cabinet (as health minister, the latter had recommended beetroot and garlic to treat HIV and AIDS). And in a surprise, conciliatory move, he named Pieter Mulder, head of the Freedom Front Plus party—the voice of conservative white Afrikaners—as deputy minister for agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

In June, Zuma’s South Africa will come under the global microscope when a half-million soccer fans arrive for the World Cup, the planet’s biggest sporting event. The country’s yawning economic gap—which Zuma has labelled a ticking “time bomb”—will be hard to miss. Whether the new president can truly attack that—as well as rampant corruption, bureaucratic incompetence and what Brink calls a gratuitous “surplus of violence,” including jaw-dropping levels of sexual violence—remains to be seen. It is early days. Yet South Africa’s moorings are clearly intact. And President Zuma seems set to continue to surprise.