A South African of Charisma and Mystery
By BARRY BEARAK
JOHANNESBURG — Last year, The Financial Mail, one of South Africa’s leading business magazines, placed a photo of Jacob Zuma on the cover and then, alongside in big letters, the warning: “Be Afraid.”
But what exactly was there to fear?
To all appearances, Mr. Zuma did not — and does not — hold any outrageous or threatening political or economic beliefs. Indeed, the magazine concluded that he was far more interested in holding power than in making policy, long on charm if short on intellect.
In recent months, as Mr. Zuma has edged ever closer to South Africa’s presidency, his ideological underpinnings, if they exist at all, have remained opaque.
Is he the pro-business capitalist who has reassured investors that “nothing will change”? Or does his heart lie with the trade unions and Communists, the base of his support?
There is a third possibility, of course. It is that Mr. Zuma, as many here suggest, is the ultimate political chameleon, all things to all people, someone who senses what his audience wants to hear and then plays the right tune.
This weekend, these questions assumed greater urgency when the African National Congress, South Africa’s governing party, prevailed on President Thabo Mbeki to resign. A caretaker will soon assume his post, and elections will follow next year. At that point, Mr. Zuma will presumably become the nation’s leader.
South Africa continues to have a healthy economy, the biggest on the continent. But more than half of the population is destitute, and the extreme gap between rich and poor grows ever wider.
Mr. Zuma, 66, has been president-in-waiting since December, when he bested Mr. Mbeki for the top job in the party hierarchy. His shadow has loomed over the government ever since, and it now becomes even starker.
He is a husky man with a shaved head, a high-beam smile and an outsize personality. Should people be afraid?
“I can’t tell you why, but he scares me to death,” said Rita Middleton, as she took in the newspaper headlines on Sunday in a neighborhood grocery.
By all accounts, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma is boisterous and charismatic. On stage, he clasps a microphone and sways to the rhythm. His signature song is a liberation-era ditty called “Bring Me My Machine Gun.”
A Zulu, he was born in rural Natal, now called KwaZulu-Natal. His father died when Jacob was an infant. His mother moved the family to a suburb of Durban, where she became a maid.
Mr. Zuma grew up without formal education. He joined the African National Congress, then illegal, at age 17 and served in Umkhonto, its military wing.
In 1963, the apartheid government convicted him of trying to overthrow the government. He endured 10 years in prison.
Mr. Zuma considers himself a Zulu traditionalist. Some aspects of that tradition have upset human rights groups. Mr. Zuma has advocated the practice of testing virgins — inspecting girls to make sure they have preserved their virtue. A practicing polygamist, by most counts over the years he has taken six wives.
In 2005, on trial for the rape of a 31-year-old family friend, Mr. Zuma testified that she had seduced him by wearing a short skirt and sitting in a provocative way. He said that “Zulu culture” had left him no option but to oblige. Afterward, he said, he took a shower, believing it would minimize the risk of contracting H.I.V. He was found not guilty.
That same year, President Mbeki fired Mr. Zuma, his deputy since 1999. Evidence showed that a Durban businessman convicted of bribery had brokered payments from a French arms supplier. The money was alleged to have gone to Mr. Zuma.
“Some may think Zuma is a crook, but they don’t think he’s the big fish,” said Barney Mthombothi, editor of The Financial Mail.
Much of Mr. Zuma’s support within his party comes from the other two members of the “Tripartite Alliance:” the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the Communist Party.
“Understand that these Communists are not very communist,” Adam Habib, a political analyst, said. “These days, who is? They’re more like social democrats.” At any rate, Mr. Zuma often espouses their economic populism.
For the trade unions or the Communist Party, “First prize is getting someone in power who thinks like you,” said William Gumede, the author of a book about the African National Congress, who continued, “Second prize is getting a guy you believe you can manipulate.”
Mr. Zuma knows well that many find him troubling and ambiguous. He busies himself with what the South African news media calls “charm offensives.”
He is off to Davos, Switzerland, reassuring international lenders, then back to Johannesburg to mix with the downtrodden in the black townships, then on to Pretoria to press the flesh with skeptical Afrikaners.
Nearly always he makes a favorable impression: a good guy, a bright guy, a fun guy, certainly no one to fear.