Few have much time for politicians these days, but rare are those who have attracted as much opprobrium recently as Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, leader of the “rainbow nation” since 2009.
Last week, Zuma, 74, sacked half his cabinet, including the respected finance minister, Pravin Gordhan. The move, which South Africans learned about in the small hours of Thursday morning, sent the country into political crisis and further split the African National Congress (ANC). The 105-year-old party has ruled unchallenged since the end of apartheid in 1994, but is now in disarray.
There has been much speculation about the motives of the president. Critics accuse Zuma of hoping to assure the succession of a former wife who may protect him from multiple corruption charges once he has left office. Zuma will soon have to step down as ANC leader and whoever fills the post will almost certainly become president after parliamentary polls in 2019. Other opponents suggest Zuma is seeking to take control of the finance ministry, to push through deals that will favour cronies, or simply preparing to unleash a raft of populist, economically unsustainable policies in a bid to reverse the ANC’s electoral decline.
Supporters say Zuma needed to act against those who have blocked “transformation” of this stunningly beautiful, but deeply troubled land, where the consequences of nearly 50 years of apartheid and centuries of colonialism remain all too evident to all but the most obtuse visitor. A flavour of Zuma’s world view was given to the Observer by the man he has just appointed as finance minister, Malusi Gigaba, a 45-year-old loyalist with limited financial or business experience. In an interview last year, Gigaba spoke of how the ANC was ultimately “a fighting liberation movement” that, having overcome apartheid and seized political power, was now battling to gain control of the economy. Zuma uses similar language, blaming “white monopoly capitalism” for attempts to oust him.
That the president sees the world in terms of a struggle is unsurprising. Nelson Mandela was not the only South African to walk a long road to freedom, or to continue his march on a relatively rocky road beyond.
Zuma was born in the remote village of Nkandla in the centre of the historic homeland of the Zulu people in 1942. After his policeman father died, he accompanied his mother to Durban, where she became a domestic worker. He received no formal schooling, later saying that he decided to educate himself when he realised that he, the eldest son, needed to earn to support his siblings. At a recent visit to a school, he quoted Shakespeare, which he said he had believed at the time he needed to prove his new scholarship.
When he was six, minding herds in the hills around Nkandla, the National Party took power in South African and began to construct the racist and repressive system known as “apartheid”. At 17, influenced by a relative who was a committed union member, Zuma joined the ANC.
In 1960, the party was banned and its leadership opted for a strategy of armed struggle. This was a failure, resulting in massive arrests of members. Zuma, who was an early recruit to the ANC’s clandestine military wing, was detained as he tried to leave the country for military training and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was sent to the famous jail on Robben Island, where he joined Nelson Mandela and other senior ANC leaders. On his release, Zuma returned to activism. In 1976, the Soweto uprising marked a new wave of resistance, and the beginning of the end for the increasingly beleaguered apartheid regime.
Zuma, who had left South Africa for Mozambique shortly after his release from prison, was involved in organising and training the many young volunteers who sought out ANC-run camps in neighbouring countries. He also undertook dangerous missions himself. Canny, brave, hard-working, forthright, but charming when he needed to be, the young party cadre rose rapidly up the ANC hierarchy, taking on the crucial, and powerful, position of head of internal intelligence and security. This means, commentators and former associates say today, that he knows “where all the bodies are buried”. Given the violence of the times and the fact that Zuma was a member of the shadowy ANC disciplinary arm, Mbokodo (“the stone that crushes”), the reference may not be entirely metaphorical.
As apartheid crumbled, Zuma returned to South Africa, playing a backroom role in negotiations leading up to the euphoric general elections of 1994 which brought the ANC to power and made Mandela president. A key task was countering the powerful Inkatha Freedom Party, based in Zuma’s Zulu homeland, and then reconciling with this former enemy. The battle between Inkatha and the ANC had claimed thousands of lives as gangs fought with knives, sticks and guns across much of the country. The peaceful transition of power that, justly, appeared such a miracle to observers and participants alike, thus depended on the existence both of Mandela, who now has the status of a secular saint, and people like Zuma, who no one would describe as a model of moral probity and whose trademark tune is the struggle anthem “Bring Me My Machine [Gun]”. Last week, treasury staff sang a different song as the ousted finance minister, another veteran of the liberation fight, entered the ministry for the last time, the desperately mournful Senenzi na, “What have we done”.
Zuma does not seem much given to retrospective heartache. His career has been marked by a bullish disregard for convention and a rugged tenacity in the face of adversity. This may have endeared him to some supporters as much as his populist rhetoric.
It certainly was a contrast with the distant, intellectual Thabo Mbeki, who, handpicked by Mandela, was president from 1999 to 2008. Zuma, the former herdsboy, got to be deputy president, and was fired in 2005 amid rape allegations – he was acquitted – and a raft of graft charges, dropped when a judge decided the case was politically tainted. In 2008, Zuma ousted Mbeki from the ANC leadership and in 2009 became prime minister.
If Zuma is blunt, his supporters can be brutal. When a gallery exhibited a life-size painting of Zuma depicted as Lenin in a revolutionary pose with exposed genitals, the gallery received death threats. Brett Murray, the artist – a former anti-apartheid activist – said the work was justified because Zuma, who has four current wives, as well as 22 children, has made no secret of his polygamy. Yet he has known, too, how to capture visceral sentiments that are rarely voiced. Though booed at the funeral of Mandela in 2013, his singing of Thina sizwe, “We the Nation”, a powerful struggle-era anthem that highlights the occupation of land by colonialists, was called a “political masterstroke”. He may have calculated that a refusal last year to repay some of the £15m of public funds improperly spent on his home in his native village would not outrage his heartland support.
Recent criticism has intensified as the ANC’s electoral fortunes, and the economy, have flagged. The anger has been directed less against Zuma’s policy decisions than his exercise of power. He is accused of undermining key institutions by making appointments based on loyalty rather than competence, and of improper relations with a family of very wealthy Indian-origin tycoons. A recent report by the popular and respected public ombudsman, Thuli Madonsela, described a situation of “state capture” by business interests.
Does Zuma care? Probably not. He did not even consult government colleagues, including the deputy president, before firing Gordhan and the others last week. But Zuma will be gone within a year or so. The question now is what ANC, and what South Africa, he leaves behind.
In Clarens, a picturesque tourist town on the southern edge of the vast plains of the Free State, two young black men served coffee to a stream of white tourists, mainly South Africans, in an upmarket cafe on Friday. The midnight political massacre had occurred only hours before. Themba, 26, and Daniel, 27, were both born to poor parents in townships. One just down the road; the other 650km to the northeast. Neither can remember the days of the struggle against apartheid. They can, however, remember how they could not go to college for want of funds, and how they were turned down for good government jobs, such as teaching, for lack of qualifications. They are both acutely aware of the degree to which the colour of their skin still determines opportunities in their country, and of the effort needed to overcome and succeed. “You’ve got to keep trying,” said Daniel. “But it’s a long, long tunnel before you see any light.”
The Zuma file
Born 12 April 1942 in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal province. He was born into poverty and received no formal schooling. His mother was a domestic worker and his father, a police officer, died when he was young. He joined the ANC in 1959, becoming president of South Africa in 2009. The 74-year-old is a traditional Zulu polygamist. He has been married six times and has 22 children.
Best of times His election in 2009, where his modest background earned him a name as “the people’s president”.
Worst of times In March 2016, when South Africa’s highest court found he had used public funds to upgrade his home.
What he says “As Africans, long before the arrival of religion and [the] gospel, we had our own ways of doing things… Those were times that the religious people refer to as dark days, but we know that, during those times, there were no orphans or old age homes.”
What others say “It is painful for us… to bear witness to the wheels coming off the vehicle of our state.” Nelson Mandela Foundation