Flashback: Jacob Zuma, the people’s champion?

President Jacob Zuma was elected chairman of the African National Congress in 2007 with marginalised South Africans hoping for change. This is how we reported his victory.


In a week in December that reshaped politics and ideology, South Africa set itself firmly on an African course that abandons any pretence of first worldliness. It is back to grassroots people-power where the masses rule.

On the way out is government by the elite and intellectuals, its end pronounced by a strong swing to the left that upended Thabo Mbeki’s leadership of the ruling African National Congress party and relegated most of his confidantes to the bottom of the party leadership heap. For many, apartheid had been replaced with an economic separateness in which a few lucky political favourites grew fabulously wealthy while the number of miserably poor multiplied.

The blow delivered by the vote was deadly and decisive. Nothing would be as it was. Tumult followed tempest in a stormy second week that saw the new ANC party president being served with a summons to face 16 corruption, fraud and racketeering charges in a court hearing set down for August this year.

It was a bombshell few expected, most believing the decision to prosecute would be put on hold for at least a few months into the New Year. It created a flashpoint that was only defused by high-level intervention.

Zuma’s main sponsors in his leadership crusade, the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) and the Cosatu labour movement, were outraged at the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) decision to indict him. Cosatu’s leader in KwaZulu-Natal province, Zet Luzipho, accused the NPA of “following a political agenda”, saying Cosatu would not be responsible for “people’s consequent actions”.

He warned that blood would be spilt in the courtrooms because of the NPA’s decision. The Cosatu leadership quickly stepped in to defuse Luzipho’s explosive assertions, and issued the assurance that Cosatu members “will not resort to violence”.

“It is within our tradition to address issues peacefully,” said senior Cosatu official Patrick Craven. “Our members won’t be violent.” The NPA rejected claims that it was being used for political ends.

“We are aware of claims that the NPA is being misused to advance the political and other objectives of certain individuals,” announced spokesman Tlali Tlali. “This is not so. The decision to prosecute Jacob Zuma has been made by the NPA alone.”

It was a tense moment and illustrated for South Africa how tautly the tightrope was stretched. The restructured party’s first day at the office was on 8 January, and the priority order of business was to elect the powerful National Working Committee (NWC) to steer the organisation.

As expected, the key men and women were handpicked by Zuma and reflect his left of centre political spectrum and signal the socialist path along which he will take the country. Defeated President Thabo Mbeki did not attend the session.

Key business at the NWC’s closed sessions centred on Zuma’s upcoming corruption trial, deciding on strategy to deal with possible clashes between party and state centres of power and the selection of committees to recommend new direction for tackling HIV/ Aids, joblessness, continued economic inequality and housing and healthcare non-delivery, amongst other issues.

Bring me my machine-gun In the end, it was always about change, both in political style and substance. Zuma’s signature tune uMshini Wami (Bring Me My Machinegun) is the most popular song in South Africa.

Most know the words by heart. It recalls Zuma’s days as head of intelligence in the ANC’s external guerrilla training camps and typifies his hero status with the people. Starkly in contrast is the way Mbeki delivers his speeches, with quotations and poems from great writers.

Noted one delegate after Zuma’s speech: “I’ve never been able to understand any of Mbeki’s speeches, but I understood Zuma’s speech today easily.” And that’s because Zuma uses the vernacular of the township streets where hardship sets its own language.

If the ANC’s balloting members had misgivings about the criminal charges hanging over Zuma’s head and his recent trial on charges of rape, of which he was acquitted, they had little impact on the outcome of the vote. Grinding poverty, the widening gap between rich and poor, dismal social delivery and unemployment mattered more to South Africa’s millions of have-nots than allegations of misbehaviour around a hero perceived to have the power and the will to make a difference.

A champion of the masses had emerged and the party’s rank and file was quick and eager to hoist him on their shoulders. Thabo Mbeki, on the other hand, was never a man of the people.

He was born to the manor and grew up in a place of privilege, the son of ANC icons, a party blue-blood whose ascension to the highest position was never in doubt. Because of such an accident of birth, he viewed his fellow South Africans from a lofty perch and was perceived just as distant by the proletariat over which he ruled, and who held his fate in their hands.

Mbeki’s mother, 91-year-old Epainette, says her son lost the party leadership because his intelligence is intimidating. “It’s all because ordinary people cannot reach up to him and he won’t come down to them,” she maintains.

She predicts that the hostility between the two factions in the ANC will increase in the next 24 months and that anarchy is imminent. It was understandable for Mbeki to feel secure in the months running up to the conference, because nobody told him anything different.

It was also reasonable for him to have little more than niggling doubts that his rival might have more firepower than was generally supposed. He wasn’t overly worried when preliminary balloting signified a strong swing to the left.

He showed little more than pique when the women’s movement came out in support of Zuma, only months after he beat a rape charge, in the process demonstrating distinct misogyny. The signs were there, but Mbeki failed to see them, said one Mbeki confidante after the voting. In other words, he failed to hear the critical message that he did not have an inalienable right to rule and neglected to account to the people who confer the power to lead.

“The lesson is simple,” says business leader Kaizer Nyatsumba. “Get drunk with a sense of self-importance and look down upon the rank and file members who put you in that position of power, and you are history. The people will take that power back and cut you down to size.

Democracy means the will of the people, not the will of the elite.” The first challenge to the Zuma party presidency will be to hold the loyalty of tripartite partners Cosatu and the communist party. Their support in ousting Mbeki did not come without strings, the most binding of which will be a leftward shift in economic policy.

Rule by non-consensus politics South Africa now faces some 15 months of political grind and uncertainty as government and party go to war with one another. Between now and the general elections due in mid-2009, two conflicting ideological centres of power will rule the country as President Thabo Mbeki sees out the final months of his 10 years as national head and the new ANC leader Jacob Zuma stamps his authority on the party and calls the shots on important policy issues.

To all intents and purposes Mbeki is now a presidential ‘lame duck’, but he has promised not to go quietly, already flexing defiant administrative muscle in national matters. Zuma does not necessarily have to wait out Mbeki’s reign.

One extreme course would be for the Zuma faction to call a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in Mbeki. Zuma will have to check on the numbers, but on the surface it seems such an action would succeed, even if the opposition parties sided with Mbeki. Zuma could use the same majority in parliament to force through new left-leaning legislation, while Mbeki could frustrate their passage by not signing them into law.

For South Africans it is like trying to make sense of an ever-changing kaleidoscope. There is little prospect of a quick conclusion or settled political landscape anytime soon. As the headline writers are saying “You ANC nothing yet!”. If nothing else, South Africans can look forward to an interesting 2008.

Tom Nevin

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