Jacob Zuma: Dividing a nation

Jacob Zuma is disliked by many South Africans because of his controversial past, but to others he represents change. By Aoife Kavanagh 

At political rallies the length and breadth of South Africa supporters of presidential frontrunner Jacob Zuma can be heard chanting the theme song for his campaign.  It's a favourite of Zuma's entitled ‘Umshini Wami' or ‘Bring me my Machine Gun; Don't make me wait.'. 


Millions of South Africans complain that they are sick of waiting. Waiting for their lives to improve, waiting for jobs, waiting for homes.  That impatience is now directed at their President, Thabo Mbeki, who has been criticised for economic policies that, some claim, have only benefited a small black elite. South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world.

The rise and rise of Jacob Zuma through the ranks of South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) is evidence of that desire for change and for progress. Leadership of the ANC is the traditional stepping stone to the top job in the country, but frustration and lack of faith in President Mbeki and his policies mean that the party and, indeed the country, is now deeply divided over who their next leader should be.


Jacob Zuma's bid for the leadership of the ANC, and indeed for the presidency of South Africa in 2009 began in earnest the day he was sacked as the country's deputy president by Thabo Mbeki, after his financial adviser Schabir Shaik was found guilty of corruption and fraud. While Zuma himself was subsequently charged with corruption in relation to a controversial arms deal, the case against him was dismissed. However, his legal problems are far from over, and its expected that fraud and corruption charges relating to the same case will be levelled against him again in the months to come.

The fact that a presidential hopeful may soon face criminal charges is just one of the reasons why, for some South Africans, Jacob Zuma is not the man to lead the country or the ANC. But there are plenty of other reasons why the country is now divided between those who love JZ, as  his supporters call him, and those who abhor him.


His detractors say Zuma is a populist, with dubious moral credentials who doesn't have the intellectual capacity of the current President. They also say the fact that Zuma's support base is the trade union movement may damage South Africa in the eyes of both foreign and domestic investors.  His supporters on the other hand describe him as a man of the people and claim that his dismissal in 2005 was motivated by President Mbeki's concern about his growing popularity. They are critical of what they say is Mbeki's autocratic leadership style and believe that Jacob Zuma is everything Mbeki is not.

It's true Thabo Mbeki is partly responsible for Zuma's rise. The President's decision to contest the ANC leadership for a third time meant it was always going to be difficult for a third candidate to emerge. His own brother, Moletsi Mbeki agrees, and he also believes that discontent with the current government, and with its President, is helping the Zuma camp. “I see his rise as a protest vote against the government's lack of communication with the people, and its inability to solve the country' unemployment, AID's and poverty problems. The current presidency has failed to find sustainable solutions to those problems”. 


The anti-Zuma camp is also keen to focus on what Zuma's trade union support would mean for South Africa's economy. The Congress of South African Trade Unions(COSATU) has backed him from the start. COSATU is a wealthy and powerful force in South Africa, with almost two million members. The movement is frustrated that the lot of the ordinary South African has scarcely improved since the days of apartheid and has decided that Zuma is the answer. But while Zuma is careful to hold on tightly to their support, its unclear exactly what he has promised in return. “I don't know where the Left ever got the idea that Zuma has strong leftist credentials,” said Hein Marais, a South African author and researcher. “If he becomes president we are going to be confronted with a man who has promised a lot, who has got IOU's tailing behind him and he is not going to be able to satisfy everybody”.

In the run-in to the ANC leadership conference, Zuma was out of the country, visiting India, the United States and the UK, in a bid, apparently, to convince investors and politicians that he plans no radical u-turns on South Africa's economic policies. Assurances that won't have gone down well with his trade union backers at home.

Moletsi Mbeki believes that Zuma's campaign to reassure foreign investors is working and, even though his brother stands to lose out to him, he doesn't believe South Africa has anything to fear from a Zuma presidency,  “I was in London recently talking to fund managers who have billions of pounds invested in South Africa,” he said, “They want to know what Zuma is likely to do, but when I told him what his backers, the trade union movement want him to do, they didn't see that as particularly threatening”.

If Zuma is working hard to convince voters and investors that he will hold the party line on economic policies, he has been less successful in persuading the electorate that he has the moral authority to lead the country. His legal tussles didn't begin and end with corruption and fraud. Two years ago he faced rape charges, when the daughter of an old friend of his accused him of attacking her in the family home. The judge ruled that the sex between the pair had been consensual and all charges against Zuma were dropped. However it emerged during the course of the trial that his accuser was HIV positive and Zuma caused uproar when he announced he had taken a shower after they had unprotected sex, to guard against infection.


Aids activists – and indeed the judge – condemned him for suggesting that taking a shower would provide enough protection against the virus.

The ANC also faces the prospect that their new leader will be back in the courts again in 2008 to face corruption and fraud charges. The jury is out on just how that would affect Zuma's presidential prospects in 2009.


Given that Thabo Mbeki is prevented by the South African constitution from running for President for a third term - and he has assured the electorate that he has no intention of challenging that clause - the only potential stumbling block between Zuma and the presidency is the emergence of a third candidate. The most popular choice is Cyril Ramaphosa – a legendary ANC figure who was the movement's Chief Negotiator during talks with the National Party which brought about the end of Apartheid.  Back when Thabo Mbeki succeeded Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa in 1999, it is said that Ramaphosa and not Mbeki was Mandelaís choice to lead the country.  Closer to home,  Ramaphosa was also part of the weapons inspection team in Northern Ireland.

In recent years, Ramaphosa has focussed on his business interests, and is now a very wealthy man. However he retains strong support within the ANC and amongst the public. If he is to challenge Zuma for the Presidency, it can only be seen as a major setback for the Zuma camp.