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ANC’S banana boy with a slippery mission

Rising to greet King Goodwill Zwelithini's wife Buhle Mathe, Inkatha chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the National Party's Natal leader George Bartlett at last Sunday's Jesus Peace Rally in Durban, the ANC's Jacob Zuma already had the aura of the regional premiership about him. Zuma was the first of the dignitaries to arrive at the ecumenical event, adopting the attitude of the man in the driving seat as the others entered the presidential box at King's Park Stadium.  Still 11 days away from almost certain victory in the regional election, he was a man on a mission.

Zuma knows that he will need to build a broad church if he is to govern South Africa's second most populous province successfully. So although shirtsleeves sufficed for Mathe, a friend of Zuma's wife from schooldays, there was respect in the elaborate gestures of greeting.  For the pinstriped Buthelezi, Zuma donned his elegant double-breasted suit jacket before an apparently warm embrace and a quick one-on-one chat in the corner. Arriving just a few minutes later, Bartlett was greeted no less enthusiastically.

Of Buthelezi, Zuma said: "I have spoken to him many times. We have very warm relations." It was Sunday, two days before Buthelezi's decision to enter the election process, but Zuma will not write off the Inkatha chief. The agenda of the Jesus Rally was coalition building: no one would be excluded from contributing to stability and growth in Natal/kwaZulu, no matter their previous track records, no matter· the legacy of enmity and bloodshed. Zuma has the confidence of a man who believes history is on his side. His conviction that he is on a winning wicket flows less from the Marxist theory he learnt from Harry Gwala on Robben Island than the progression of his own life. It's been a long road from his impoverished childhood as the son of a domestic worker too poor to send him to school to a position of influence as a leading ANC strategist. They were years of struggle and hardship Zuma describes without a hint of pathos, always in his own ability.

Almost 40 years have passed since his political education began in Cato Manor, more than 20 since his release from a decade on Robben Island, four since his emergence from the gruelling life of an underground operative. "I have accomplished an ambition to see South Africa free," he said, munching on a banana during the drive to an election rally in Pietermaritzburg's Imbali township after the Durban peace meeting. "The next task is to build the nation, to end conflict. It will centre in Natal/kwaZulu. Things could go wrong for the whole nation here – or they – I could go right.  That is why I chose to leave politics at national level and work here." He appears to have weathered the storm raised by the inquiry into abuse of prisoners in the ANC camps in Angola – there is no hint that he has been packed off to the provinces because he is no longer viable on the national stage.

Zuma is no stranger to the art of politics, once described by the German sociologist Max Webef as the patient drilling of holes in very thick boards. He has been involved in endless discussions and strategy sessions aimed at bringing Inkatha and the white ultra ­ rightwing into the electoral process. The participation of Inkatha and Constand Viljoen's Freedom Front in next week's elections is in part his work. He has patiently built a relationship with King Goodwill, who he says is a Christian who wants peace. "He is troubled by the deaths, "says Zuma, "he wants his people to live in harmony." But he is not uncritical of the monarch to whom he professes allegiance.

Referring to a rally in Durban's Umlazi township last Saturday at which Nelson Mandela led an estimated 20 000 strong crowd in paying homage to the king, Zuma says he asked himself: "lf the king doesn't understand these are his people, then what language does he speak?"· The crowd's enthusiasm for the monarchy was genuine, says Zuma: "It electrified the rally. The king should realise some are made to look like enemies, but they love him, they respect him." The monarchy has been manipulated, believes Zuma, not just by Ulundi's current office-holders, but by the apartheid and colonial authorities who went before. "People in general are happy to see the lost dignity of the monarchy restored," he says, referring to the ANC's constitutional proposals which accord a status similar to that of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II to the Zulu royal house.

For Zuma, a modern democracy needs to continue limiting the monarch's influence, if with a new subtlety. So he seeks to temper constitutional generosity towards Zwelithini with subtle pointers to the legitimate claims of others. His knowledge of the royal houses of South Africa is an asset here, a reflection both of his roots in traditional Zulu society as the son of a member of the royal house of Zuma and his skill as a politician. When talk with church leaders turned on Sunday to the royal houses, Zuma was quick to respond to mention of the Hlubes in the Estcourt   area by   saying  "they contest (Zwelithini's sovereignty over them), they claim never to have been defeated by Shaka". He goes on to give many other examples of royal houses with separate claims to recognition.

With much of his childhood spent roaming between Durban, Mapumulo and Nkandla in the Zulu heartland, Zuma spans the spectrum of Zulu society from the traditional to the modern, from the rural to the urban. He clearly believes that loyalty to the king is the duty of every Zulu, but that democracy demands that the king be shown the limits of his power. Democracy was learnt at the knee of his half-brother Mntukabongwa, an ANC and South African Congress of Trade Unions activist at the Joko tea factory in Durban. It was the beginning of a road which saw Zuma joining Umkhonto weSizwe at its foundation, arrested while leaving the country for military training, and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment.

Released in 1973, he immediately destroyed by the police. Skipping to Swaziland when the net closed in, he illegally returned to South Africa several times. "If they'd have caught me, they would have killed me," he says. "So I had to plan my trips in great detail; that way I could be safe." On a bus ride in northern Zululand, Zuma came close to having to shoot it out with the police. "I'd planned to seize their weapons, but they weren't looking for me. It left me a little shaken." The risks were worthwhile, says Zuma. "You weren't running the struggle by remote control. You could shape the structures on the ground."

Shaping a new Natal/kwaZulu, and through it South Africa, will be Zuma's task in the next five years. A graduate of informal night schools and Robben Island study circles, and the father of 10 children, he is determined to give education spending very high priority. "I'd like to retire from active politics at the next election," he insists. "I’ll be 57. A cottage by the sea, with the waves lapping, would be wonderful. I love the sea."

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.     

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Stephen Laufer
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