The great Zuma debate

In the fierce debate raging around the man tipped to become South Africa’s next president, African National Congress deputy president Jacob Zuma, there are few neutrals.

With less than a fortnight to go before the ruling party’s national conference in Polokwane, where Zuma is expected to oust incumbent Thabo Mbeki as its head, reports show a country split over the controversial politician.

There is no shortage of strong opinion on the man who turned the Umshini Wami machinegun song into a national hit.

Zuma was born into a Zululand household, at Inkandla, on April 12 1942. His father, a policeman, died when he was three.

Zuma’s childhood and teenage years were spent in poverty, working as a herdboy and doing odd jobs to help supplement the family income.

His middle name is Gedleyehlekisa, given, he says, by his father.

“It means one who laughs with you, whilst endangering you,” Zuma told an ABC journalist in an interview last year.

His early education was basic.

While serving a 10-year sentence on Robben Island, after being convicted in 1963 of conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government, he attended adult education classes and completed Standard Eight (Grade 10).

“My father died when I was young, my mother had to seek work as a domestic, and there was no chance of me getting educated,” Zuma told historian and author RW Johnson in a 2006 interview.

“I wanted to be a teacher, a priest or a lawyer, but all I could do was to try to get other children to show me what they learnt at school.”

Zuma’s clan name is Msholozi, used as a nickname by his supporters. He is also referred to as “JZ”.

He appears to set great store by his Zulu heritage and the customs of his people, once using it to justify having sex with a woman more than 30 years his junior.

In Zulu culture, he told the Johannesburg High Court in 2006, where he stood accused of raping a 31-year-old family friend, “I was taught that leaving a woman in that state [sexually aroused] was the worst thing a [Zulu] man can do”.

Zuma admitted during the trial to having had consensual sex with the HIV-positive woman.

His testimony caused a sensation when he told the court he had taken a shower after sex with the HIV-positive woman because that “would minimise the risk of contracting the disease”.

Zuma was found not guilty of rape, but presiding Judge Willem van der Merwe did not let him go without a moral rebuke.

Van der Merwe ended his judgment by saying: “It is totally unacceptable that a man should have unprotected sex with any person other than his regular partner and definitely not with a person who to his knowledge is HIV-positive.

“I do not even want to comment on the effect of a shower after having had unprotected sex.

“Had Rudyard Kipling known of this case at the time he wrote his poem If he might have added the following: ‘And if you can control your body and your sexual urges, then you are a man my son.’”

Zuma has had four wives, but one has died, and he is divorced from another, Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

‘I love my wives’

“There are plenty of politicians ...
who have mistresses and children that they hide so as to pretend they’re monogamous. I prefer to be open. I love my wives and I’m proud of my children,” he told Johnson.

“Honesty is always the best policy. I don’t feel comfortable if I’m not honest.”

According to reports, Zuma has 18 children. Attempts to verify this with Zuma’s office were not successful.

Zulu culture also came to the fore in an explanation he gave after being widely condemned for a remark about gays.

He reportedly told a Heritage Day celebration in KwaZulu-Natal last year, “when I was growing up, an ungqingili [a homosexual] would not have stood in front of me. I would knock him out”.

Zuma later explained: “I spoke of how when I was a boy we still trained in stick-fighting, and if you saw a boy who was effeminate, a sissy, he was beaten up because everyone had to learn to fight and be strong.”

Zuma joined the ANC as a teenager and became an active member of its armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, in 1962. The next year he was caught leaving the country for military training, and served 10 years on Robben Island.

After his release, he left South Africa for Swaziland, and then Mozambique. He left that country in 1987, and moved to Zambia, returning from exile in 1990.

In 1994, he was elected ANC national chairperson, and in 1997 became deputy president of the party.

He was appointed deputy president of South Africa in June 1999, a position he held until being sacked by Mbeki six years later.

Political observers have described Zuma as a pragmatist, one “used to dealing with organisational politics and strategic issues”.

Johnson describes bumping into former Democratic Alliance chief whip, Douglas Gibson, fresh from a meeting with Zuma, who was acting president at the time.

“Warm, genial, helpful and friendly. What a nice human being,” Gibson reportedly said.

The prospect of Zuma becoming South Africa’s next president has many in the local business community worried.

A Financial Mail editorial last week warned: “Zuma appears miles away from the liberal moral philosophy that underpins our constitutional democracy ... There is certainly no reason to relax when it comes to economic policy. Though Zuma has tried to project the impression that ‘nothing will change’, there is no good reason to believe this.”

However, political analyst Steven Friedman told the South African Press Association he did not think there would be a “significant shift” in economic policies in the event of a Zuma presidency.

“I think there will be a sharp reaction from investors initially ... there could be a bit of a re-run of what happened when Finance Minister Trevor Manuel took office ... but I think that will calm down. He [Zuma] is already on a charm offensive; I would expect him to continue that.”

Others note his cosy relationship with the Left, and his widespread popularity among the working class.

Independent analyst Lawrence Schlemmer last week said Zuma would be” constantly reminded that the South African Communist Party and the trade union

movement, whether officially or otherwise, have been on his side”.

One issue where Zuma has garnered popular if not party support, is crime.

‘No mercy’

At a recent meeting in Cape Town, he said there should be “no mercy with criminals”, further noting too much emphasis was placed on the rights of criminals as opposed to victims, and that “extraordinary measures” were needed to deal with crime.

Ironically, he faces possible corruption charges himself in connection with the multibillion-rand arms deal. Some believe this could still scotch his chances of becoming president of the country.

Zuma has consistently protested his innocence throughout the five-year legal wrangling that has characterised attempts to prosecute him.

He told a meeting of businessmen in Johannesburg last month he was ready, if asked, to be the country’s next president, adding he was “fit to govern”.

This week, National Prosecuting Authority acting head Mokotedi Mpshe announced he would not take a decision on prosecuting Zuma before next year, saying up to two months were needed to assess the case and the evidence.

Animosity in the succession race has prompted Mbeki to deny this week that he and Zuma were enemies.

Mbeki said he was “puzzled as to why it is suggested that we are”.

Yet, little neutrality is to be expected from ANC members during and after next month’s ANC conference—whatever the outcome of the leadership battle. - Sapa

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