Jacob Zuma is an affable man justly lauded for attempting to recreate Nelson Mandela’s reconciliatory style in the aftermath of Thabo Mbeki’s deeply divisive tenure. In this context, the new South African president’s prickly attack on neocolonial British attitudes towards “barbaric” Africans was remarkable. It was reminiscent of Mbeki himself, and even Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
The column that provoked the attack, by the Mail’s Stephen Robinson, was indeed an instance of the kind of sarky condescension with which Zuma takes issue. But by rising to the bait at the outset of his most important foreign tour yet, Zuma manifested a dawning truth about his fledgling presidency: he is weak and embattled, not least by the latest revelations about his messy personal life.
A month ago, the South African media revealed that Zuma had a secret child born out of wedlock; after brazening it out for a few days with the “this is my Zulu culture” defence, he was forced to offer an apology. This was not because of an uproar from white racists, but rather, because of the disquiet and outrage of black South Africans, who understood that he was abusing traditional customs to justify his own goatishness. There is no question that he had broken the very strict rules of traditional African polygamy by impregnating the daughter of Irvin Khoza, a close personal friend and South Africa’s football supremo.
The episode compromised Zuma’s authority, already weak by virtue of the fact that he is in power thanks to the sponsorship of a disparate group of ANC leaders with little in common. These include leftwing trade unionists, ambitious businessmen, Zulu ethnicists, and spooks and provincial strongmen sidelined by Mbeki – all of whom saw in Zuma a route into power, and now would like to call in their bets.
Most of them lined up behind Zuma for the simple reason that he was not Mbeki, and was willing to take the man on; many, now, are reckoning with their bad call. Observing Zuma deliver his state of the nation address in parliament a week after his apology, the South African commentator Richard Calland wrote that he could “smell the sense of distance and disdain” towards Zuma from ANC parliamentarians:
“You hear it in the conversations of longstanding ANC members and activists, who remember the days when the ANC’s grand mission was not only to conquer apartheid, but also to do so with a compelling sense of modernity, of non-ethnicity and non-sexism, to set a new standard as a paragon of decency and dignity that would surprise the world and win Africa new-found respect and intellectual status.”
Much remains good about Jacob Zuma presidency: rational leadership at last on Aids; a talented and heterodox cabinet held to account by performance appraisals; a lack of the defensiveness that characterised the Mbeki era. Zuma’s populism has rendered the South African government more responsive and accessible than it was during the aloof Mbeki’s tenure. But it has also meant that Zuma presents himself as all things to all people – and he seems unable to be the kind of decisive leader South Africa needs, if it is going to combat its huge problems.
The country lost nearly 900,000 jobs in last year’s recession; a haemorrhage it can ill-afford given its endemic unemployment rates and consequent crime levels. As one senior business leader told me recently:
“At least under Mbeki you knew whom to talk to, and there was a line everyone followed. Now, every time I visit the Union Buildings [the South African presidency], I feel as if I am walking into a children’s playroom where everyone is squabbling over the toys.”
There is an edge to the metaphor. The toys represent not just policy positions, but the lucrative access to state patronage, via tenders for state contracts. And this is where Zuma’s messy personal life becomes a serious issue: his many wives; his 20-odd children; the bad judgment that rendered him vulnerable to both corruption charges in 2005 and rape charges in 2006 – even if this bad judgment was exploited by his political enemies in the Mbeki camp.
This week, Zuma was quoted as saying, “When the British came to our country, they said everything we are doing was barbaric, was wrong, inferior in whatever way.” But the serious critique of Zuma is not about who is a barbarian and who is civilised. It is about good governance, and this is a universal value, as relevant to an African village as it is to Westminster. If you are unable to keep your appetites in check, you are inevitably going to live beyond your means. And this means you are going to become vulnerable to patronage and even corruption. That is why Jacob Zuma’s “polygamy” is his achilles heel.
Mark Gevisser, the author of A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream.