The caricature of Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki beloved of analysts is that Zuma is warm and accessible, while Mbeki is cold and remote. That Zuma will govern consultatively where Mbeki operated by fiat. It is a contrast that obscures more than it reveals.
What Mbeki really thought he was doing is now a matter for historians, but Zuma’s likely style and direction once he takes power is a matter of anxious futurology. Given his thin record as an MEC in KwaZulu-Natal and the absence of a thorough account of his role in exile, it is difficult to use past results as a guide.
Where Mbekists approached their sometimes baffling subject with the tools of psychology and literary analysis — what Ronald Suresh Roberts derisively called ”soul-gazing” — Zumaologists seem content to understand the president elect by reference to his friends.
On the one hand, there is the Shaik family, underground financiers of the struggle, spooks and latterly small-time players in the patronage-fuelled peri-statal economy. On the other, there is Blade Nzimande, the would-be Chavez of South Africa’s two-stage revolution. And what of Lindiwe Sisulu, a princess of the ANC’s royal line and guarantor of the party’s custodianship of Zuma?
The list is long — with room for friends such as the businessman JÃ¼rgen KÃ¶gl, who loaned him money to pay for a flat to live in when he returned from exile, and for fairweather ones, such as Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa, whose own ambitions have led them into alliances of convenience with Zuma.
It is the political prognostication of the Facebook era, and it may be the most useful guide we have at present. For Zuma himself remains far more of a cipher than Mbeki ever was. We know that he has large appetites, that he is a conciliator and that he can inspire fierce loyalty as well as deep suspicion. That tells us almost nothing.
If, as he often protests, Zuma has no ideas of his own but is an affable, sometimes incontinent vessel filled up with ANC policy, then how his government interprets that policy will depend on which of his friends prevails — or prevails most. To extend the Facebook metaphor, they are all writing on his wall at present and sending tokens of affection, but he will only be able to respond to a few. Who might they be?
Zuma has said that he owes no debts to anyone. It is an implausible claim. He ”owes” Schabir Shaik R4-million, less recent repayments. And he owes various disparate bits of the machine that brought him to power, from crony capitalists to redder-than-thou communists and government spies.
Those debts will tug at him, but that does not mean they will overwhelm all the other forces acting upon him. After all, he has repaid only a derisory portion of that R4-million, and he may be betting that he will be able to treat other irksome obligations in similar fashion.
That could mean nodding sagely when Nzimande demands new tariff barriers against garment imports, perhaps handing out some grants to clothing factories owned by party donors and leaving Trevor Manuel to set the real trade agenda.
More disturbingly, it could mean giving crucial posts in the less visible areas of government to his most trusted allies. Mo Shaik, is in many ways, Karl Rove to Zuma’s George W Bush: this master of the dark arts could easily return to head the national intelligence co-ordinating committee. Judge John Hlophe expects elevation to the Constitutional Court and Sandile Ngcobo is positioning himself for the role of chief justice.
Others, such as KÃ¶gl, will play a deeper undercover role as policy sounding boards and counterweights to the bigger, establishment of business people still trying to figure out how to get to Zuma.
They have banked on Sexwale, Phosa and latterly Cyril Ramaphosa, to clear their path. Zuma, if he is half as cunning as some of his old MK comrades suggest, will use them, but not rely on them.
This fractured array must compete with the single strongest influence on Zuma: the ANC itself, represented most powerfully among his friends by Lindiwe Sisulu and Gwede Mantashe, but also by a re-invigorated Manuel.
There is deep concern within this group about the president’s less controllable cronies, and of all the forces acting on Zuma they have the most power to keep him on their desired path.
But he may confound us all. The happiest outcome would be a president Zuma who discovers his own voice and uses his political skills not just to play off rival courtiers, but to harness their energies. It is a big demand to make of him, but the presidency is a big job.