Zuma Rising

Can South Africa survive Jacob Zuma?

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On Saturday, South Africa will roll out its red carpet and put on the dog, as only it can. If the past is anything to go by, there will be plenty of pageantry and poetry and a few staid speeches as big planes fly in salute over the old Union Buildings in Pretoria. It will be an occasion for South African women to don their finest—some in traditional African attire, others in stunning styles from francophone Africa, Paris and Brazil

On this day, Jacob Zuma will reach the crowning moment of a career that has all the elements of a political thriller: the poor, self-educated country boy drawn to the struggle for liberation rather than to a classroom, whose efforts to overturn the white minority (apartheid) state landed him in Robben Island prison with Nelson Mandela for 10 of Mandela’s 27 years there. He emerged as one of the “warrior elite” and got kudos for his demonstrated capacity to ease tensions and promote peace when his home province turned into a (white) state-sponsored boiling pot in the run-up to the first all-race elections in 1994.

A few of those assembled on this auspicious day will no doubt continue to refer to the clouds over Zuma, not the ones the planes are flying through, but the clouds of corruption which Zuma insists have now disappeared from over his head. 

Zuma will take office against the backdrop of his legal problems and the perception that South Africa is going the way of far too may African countries that buried the promise of their independence in coffins of corruption. Critics and a robust opposition are determined to hold the president to account.

Still, the president-elect has promised to move farther, faster to eliminate the government’s ongoing shame: the millions who still live in poverty and hopelessness. Zuma has pledged to treat AIDS as a reality that needs urgent attention. He has promised to deal with an education system that has, so far, mostly deferred the promise of the “born-free generation.” Zuma has also pledged a corruption-free government that will resolve many of the most urgent problems by assigning tasks to people who know what they are doing and not by rewarding close cronies who don’t. In short, it’s on him to give the lie to the critics—especially the media with whom he likes to spar. A recent editorial in the Sunday Times observed: “He will assume the mantle of Nelson Mandela with suspicion stacked against him and the perception widely held that he can be bought. Critics and avowed foes will be watching for the first sign of moral turpitude.” 

For now, the benefit of the doubt and the doubt stand side by side, buttressed by victory in an election that went off mostly without a hitch, especially compared to the bloody recent examples of Kenya and Zimbabwe

The South African-based NGO Gender Links reports that 55 percent of voters were women; 30 percent of the 23 million voters were casting their ballots for the first time. And for me, there was a déjà-vu quality to that day. However abundant the doubt and cynicism, the turnout was the highest since 1994, with more than 70 percent of registered voters casting ballots in the fourth democratic election. 

The born-frees—the young people who have come of age since the end of apartheid—registered in record numbers, many of them sounding like their peers in America—proud of the pioneers who fought for their freedom but who are being educated for a new world that will require a different kind of battle. This new challenge in South Africa is over how to provide them with jobs for which their desegregated schools are now preparing them.

I talked with young voters who told me “the past is the past,” and while they revere Mandela and the victorious struggle he and his “pioneers,” waged, their lives are changed by that history in such a way that they are now looking for different ways to realize the promise of democracy. Some of them voted for COPE—the main opposition party to the ruling ANC—because, they say, it’s promised change.

At the same time, another first-time voter told me that he was voting for the ANC because he wouldn’t be attending the formerly predominantly white University of the Witswatersrand had it not been for the ANC. It is now predominantly black and headed for the first time by a black man.

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