The seven-year itch

With impeccable timing, Jacob Zuma arrived in London exactly seven years after the charges of a “conspiracy to harm the president” laid against three of Thabo Mbeki’s putative rivals in April 2001.

Seven years on, the new ANC leadership — including one of the alleged conspirator Mathews Phosa, as party treasurer — was welcomed warmly in London. Business leaders and pundits alike queued for a glimpse of the real opposition to Mbeki’s government in Pretoria. For RW Johnson, writing in the Sunday Times, JZ appeared as a rightful heir to Madiba: “He radiates a spirit of natural inclusiveness … evident in his keenness to hold out an olive branch to whites.”

Questions of probity were outweighed by the merits of JZ’s supposed authenticity. According to this argument, a polygamist with at least 18 children by five wives is better equipped to lead an African nation than a self-styled technocrat and graduate of a European university.

The black professionals who identified with Mbeki were often hypocritical, suggested Johnson, alluding to Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi’s description of Mbeki as “a legendary womaniser”.

Ivan Fallon, chief executive of Independent Newspapers — whose South Africa flagship title, The Star, endorsed Mbeki’s failed bid for a third term as party leader at Polokwane — admired JZ’s sober suit and tie, in contrast to the now familiar photographs of the new ANC leader in a traditional leopardskin. In a television interview, Jon Snow, the left-leaning anchor of Britain’s Channel 4 News, chuckled at JZ’s campaign anthem Umshini Wam. It was a part of his struggle culture, explained JZ, “like reading a story”.

After visiting German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Nicolas Sarkozy, JZ met British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Dozens of chief executives gathered for a dinner in Zuma’s honour hosted by Lord Robin Renwick, a former British ambassador and diplomatic fixer-in-chief during the last days of apartheid. Businessmen and politicians had to be turned away from a breakfast meeting at The Savoy.

At each stop, JZ delivered a simple and consistent message. South Africa’s government had done well on the economy, reducing poverty and providing basic services, he said. A recent pay rise for teachers confirmed its commitment to education and literacy. JZ wanted to reform the criminal justice system and do more to fight crime. He pledged to defend press freedom, provided the press used that freedom “responsibly”.

Four out of every five questions were about the crisis in Zimbabwe, an opportunity to exploit Mbeki’s weakness. The electoral commission in Harare had “sabotaged the democratic process”, JZ told a press conference. The newspapers called him “a strong trade unionist”, “like Tsvangirai”. As if to emphasise their affinity, JZ called Tsvangirai “Morgan”. The Independent was sufficiently encouraged to suggest, unfathomably, that JZ and Morgan (a Shona) were both “Zulus”.

Most of all, JZ smiled. It would be “irresponsible” to speculate on Cabinet posts, he said. But a rumour surfaced that Finance Minister Trevor Manuel might serve as foreign minister in a Zuma administration. In private meetings organised by Old Mutual and the International Marketing Council of South Africa, Phosa spoke seriously about fiscal discipline. Nobody asked if Zuma was a crook, at least not to his face. Nobody queried the forthcoming demise of the Scorpions.

At times, JZ sounded remarkably like his old boss. He promised the same policies, but better coordination. He even borrowed Mbeki’s words and phrases. Events in Zimbabwe were “unacceptable”, he said — just as Mbeki had told a conference of business leaders in London in 2001. The challenge in South Africa was always to find a balance between “this thing” and another “thing”. It sounded familiar, an imitation, but not flattery.

JZ made clear that he was the real party man. After the “robust” quarrels of the leadership campaign, the ANC was “more united” than before. Gone was the querulous, cerebral, urbane and acid-tongued Mbeki. JZ is a modest man, and comfortable in his skin — which turned out to be human, not animal. He read carefully — “grammatically”, reported Fallon — from a script. The gathered capitalists listened carefully, sipping coffee from tiny cups. Until, asked whether he would seek to embrace the best talents of the incumbent administration, JZ signalled to Phosa. Many of the government’s technocrats and policy wonks had been voted off the national executive at Polokwane, acknowledged Phosa. But the party’s rank and file had spoken: “That is democracy,” he said, forcefully. “I am sorry if it makes you and your friends feel uncomfortable.”

So there was the real story, spoken by a supporting actor with the indignation of a man banished for seven years to the political wilderness. South Africa might be better served by a government of all the talents, but the schism is too deep for that. It is — for now at least — a drama of bad blood and thwarted ambitions. Yesterday Polokwane, today the SABC, tomorrow Pretoria. A purge, a putsch, a revenge tragedy unfolding.

Mark Ashurst is director of the Africa Research Institute in London

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