/ 9 March 2008

Zuma stakes claim as president for the poor

Outside Luthuli House, yellow posters beg South Africans to save power. In the lobby of the African National Congress (ANC) headquarters, a veteran of the struggle against apartheid is asking to see ”Baba”. The old man does not have electricity and would like to put his case to the party president. A receptionist shakes her head: ”He comes often. We are always polite.”

Fourteen years after the first all-race elections, the poor masses have had enough. In less than three months, the rand has fallen by 15% and the country is gripped by a power crisis that is increasingly being seen by investors as proof of the wheels coming off the nation’s economy.

Since December, when ANC grass-roots members and their left-wing allies humiliated President Thabo Mbeki — who had steered the country to an annual 5% growth rate — by electing Jacob ”Baba” Zuma party president and hence next head of state at the 2009 elections, Zuma (65) has kept a low profile.

His interview with the Observer, on the 10th floor of Luthuli House, is part of an overdue charm offensive.

Zuma is ill at ease and defensive. His preference is to talk about the plight of the poor. ”I come from a rural area,” he says. ”The bulk of people are not educated and therefore they sit there every day, starving. What do we do with them? I can’t look away. That’s the question I am raising.”

Imbued with cadre discipline, the former guerrilla is not permitted to criticise Mbeki, who sacked him as deputy president in 2005 after the first corruption allegations surfaced. Yet on every issue, Zuma seems to barely conceal his contempt for the intellectual Mbeki, who spent the struggle years abroad while he served 10 years in the notorious Robben Island prison. His vaguely expressed priorities — crime, education and health — nearly all imply criticism of the present government.

”Crime needs more attention. We have to deal with it and defeat it. People in this country were abused by the old [white] government, which resorted to using deadly criminals as instruments to deal with freedom fighters. So there’s that kind of culture here. Our crime problem is also due to South Africa’s location and the opening up of a closed country, and foreign criminals and drugs. But I am confident we will host a safe [Soccer] World Cup in 2010. We are very confident of that.”

Last year the South African Institute of Race Relations reported that most of the country’s 48-million people have grown poorer under Mbeki. The government dismissed the findings, which showed that the number of South Africans living on less than $1 a day had doubled between 1996 and 2005. The government claims to have built 2,5-million homes in 10 years, but not a week goes by without a demonstration to highlight the housing shortage.

”Poverty is part of crime, of course. Apartheid created two economies — first and second. In the first-world economy you have regulations. They do not take into account the second [cash] economy, and neither do the statistics. We have to find a way to link the two economies — to encourage those in the cash economy to come up.”

Critics of the economic empowerment programme say it has mostly helped supporters of Mbeki. They fear those ”cronies” will in future be Zuma’s backers. Zuma’s supporters say he is the target of a smear campaign and that the corruption allegations — in connection with a 1999 arms deal — are trumped up. In May 2006, Zuma was acquitted on charges of rape in an unrelated case. At the time, he headed the South African National Aids Council and made a fool of himself by saying he had not used a condom but protected himself by having a shower after sex.

When Zuma supporters wore T-shirts proclaiming ”100% Zulu” it raised claims he is a tribalist. ”The ANC is anti-tribalist. Never will I be a tribalist,” he says. ”When I was in court I spoke Zulu, which is my constitutional right. It’s my language. I am a proud Zulu as I am a proud South African. It is my identity and it was probably the Zulu identity that led me to become a freedom fighter.”

Due in court again in August, he struggles to express his own ambitions. In South Africa, the poor are becoming poorer and the rich — black South Africans included — are flaunting their wealth more than ever. But if he lacks vision and knowledge, he is undoubtedly in touch with the people. A proud husband of four wives, he was elected because he is everything Mbeki is not: straight-talking, rough-and-ready, prone to mistakes and temptations. But also a ready ear.

Downstairs the frail veteran has left. But two others have arrived with similar demands. Clearly, they all believe that the new man on the 10th floor has more time for them than Mbeki had. — Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008