How new ANC chief Zuma sees party and country

Alec Russell in Johannesburg, for Financial Times, London, 6 March 2008

Jacob Zuma has a schedule worthy of a US presidential candidate. On Thursday night the easy-going new leader of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress was addressing a dinner in Pretoria, the former citadel of apartheid power, hosted by a union of mainly Afrikaner blue-collar workers. Earlier in the day he attended a rally of farmers 120 miles away in the old Orange Free State, just hours after speaking to business people in Johannesburg.

This was just one of many peripatetic days. His itinerary suggests he is still campaigning rather than savouring an extraordinary political victory. But he has had little time to celebrate his defeat of South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki last December for the leadership of the ANC.

Almost ever since then, the country has been beset by pessimism, fuelling a 15 per cent decline in the rand since the start of the year. The negativity is being driven in part by a crisis in electricity generation that has caused power cuts and lowered the projected rate of economic growth from 5 per cent to 4 per cent, as well as by a fresh spate of murders. But possibly the most significant factor is the scepticism in business about Mr Zuma.

He is a politician with a history of scandal, whose resurrection from political near-oblivion depended on the support of the trades unions and the left. Two months after his election, questions remain over what he stands for and what he would do if he survives a corruption trial in August to become the country’s president after elections next year.

Speaking to the Financial Times in Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters in central Johannesburg, he cuts a relaxed figure in a flowing African shirt, in marked contrast to the more formal Mr Mbeki, seldom seen in public out of a grey suit. On the wall of Mr Zuma’s office is a picture of the legendary Oliver Tambo, who led the movement for more than 20 years in exile. Down the corridor are portraits of Nelson Mandela and Mr Mbeki. They serve as a reminder of the extraordinary journey that Mr Zuma has travelled.

Unlike his predecessors, who were from the ANC’s educated elite, he is a working-class outsider. Raised in a village, he was largely uneducated until imprisoned on Robben Island for his role in the anti-apartheid struggle. Mr Zuma is also the most traditionally African of the party’s 12 leaders in its 96-year history: to the excitement of local media, he recently wed his fifth wife (one wife has died and one is divorced) and has at least 18 children.

He quietly dismisses the interest in his polygamy as cultural imperialism: “Some people think they have got superior cultures. That is despising other people’s cultures, it’s simple.” Yet the debate goes to the heart of his political persona and his success. To many in the townships, he is one of them but to the chattering classes, both white and black, and to the old ANC establishment, he is something of an embarrassment.

In the hour-long interview he seeks to dispel the widespread impression that the country is rudderless while he battles to assume primacy over Mr Mbeki, his old friend turned enemy. Asked whether power lay in Luthuli House or in the Union Buildings, the colonial-era government headquarters overlooking Pretoria, Mr Zuma is unequivocal. “Power lies in the ANC. It’s the ANC that wins elections,” he says. “It is the ANC that has the power to identify people who must be part of government. This is the ANC government. It is not the government of its own.” As for cabinet ministers, including Mr Mbeki himself, who have in recent weeks tried to assert their independence of the new party leadership, he implies with a hint of disdain that their authority is waning by the day.

His assurance that there will be a smooth transition is a little glib. Senior Mbeki-ite officials have in recent interviews with the FT insisted they will fight their corner against the new ANC leadership. Privately, they pin their hopes on Mr Zuma’s being convicted in his trial and having to leave politics in disgrace. For their part, some in Mr Zuma’s inner circle are pushing for an early end to the Mbeki presidency, which is due to finish next year. Adding to the conspiratorial atmosphere, there are those in Mr Zuma’s camp who see him as an embarrassment and, now he has ousted Mr Mbeki, would be happy for him to go.

Infuriated by the sense of drift, business people are hankering for certainty. For more than a fortnight of rolling power cuts this year, there was barely a word from the government or the ANC about the crisis that led to the temporary closure of the country’s gold and platinum mines and has damaged South Africa’s reputation abroad.

In a rare deviation from his usual line that he is just the servant of the ANC, whose individual views do not matter, Mr Zuma, 65, does appear keen to take the lead on combating crime. With more than 18,000 killings a year, South Africa has one of the world’s most murderous societies. Mr Mbeki likes to intellectualise the issue. At times he has suggested that criticism of the country’s crime-fighting record was primed by whites seeking to find fault with the new order. But after yet another week of high-profile murders – within 48 hours a prominent black television actor and a well-known white architect were shot dead during robbery attempts – public anger at crime is bubbling among all racial groups.

Mr Zuma does not hold back. He goes so far as to say that if there were a popular call for a referendum on reinstating the death penalty, which was abolished by the constitutional court soon after the end of white rule, he could not stand in its way.

Such rhetoric has in recent years earned him the tag of a populist. He has a history of making outspoken and injudicious remarks – dismissive about HIV risks, derogatory towards gays – and then later withdrawing them. He all but harrumphs when asked if he was a populist. “I don’t know what they [people] mean by that,” he says. “I haven’t said things because I want people to be happy. I speak my mind on the issues always.”

Tough talk on crime endears him to all South Africans. It is also a reminder of how he exploited Mr Mbeki’s aloof, wooden style to win over the party’s grassroots. But on other matters, notably economic policy, he is far less specific. Business was comforted by Mr Zuma’s insistence in the countdown to December’s election that he would not yank policy to the left and by “steady as you go” comments he made at Davos in January. His mantra, repeated to the FT, is that economic policy is a matter for the entire ANC and not just its leader.

But the suspicion that he lacks a clear sense of direction was heightened last month when he delivered some markedly pro-business comments about the regulation of labour before promptly retracting them under pressure from his allies, the unions. So business people still fret that the ousting of Mr Mbeki by a more leftwing grouping will dilute South Africa’s market-friendly policies of the past decade.

Clearly a little exasperated to be asked yet again about his ties to the left, he dismisses the idea that he is in hock to the unions. Mr Mandela and Mr Mbeki, his two predecessors, were both elected with the backing of the unions, he points out. “I fail to understand why [people think] Zuma is going to come with some funny thing. The ANC is a very particular organisation in dealing with policy, very particular, very thorough. There is no way an individual can come [and say]: ‘Now I have come I want to move policy in this direction.’”

He expresses the requisite concern about the fall of the rand to its lowest level in five years. He also salutes the record of Trevor Manuel, finance minister, whose prudent handling of matters has made him in the west at least a talisman of the nation’s economic management: “I think it’s fair to say he has done a good job.”

But he refuses to dismiss nationalisation out of hand. Rather, asked whether he would back the push by his communist and union allies to return to a policy of nationalisation, he resorts to obfuscation. “If there are issues, they should be put on the table so we should discuss the merits of the argument.” He does not say he would support such a move but equally does not distance himself from it. His equivocation reflects the difficulty he faces as he tries to reassure business while convincing the left that he will not ignore pleas for a greater focus on redistribution. It underlines the ambiguities about a Zuma presidency.

Since winning the ANC’s top job, he has also, for example, retreated from hints he gave on the campaign trail that he would be more critical of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. Asked for his opinion of the veteran autocrat, who is presiding over annual inflation of more than 100,000 per cent, he says he knows him “very well, we were freedom fighters together” but adds that it would be unfair to judge him. “He has been the president there for quite a long time and things have happened in Zimbabwe” is all he will say.

He defends “quiet diplomacy” towards its northern neighbour, arguing that no other country’s approach has been more effective. It is up to Zimbabweans to change Zimbabwe, he says. It is an argument that infuriates those in the Zimbabwean opposition who recall helping the ANC to undermine apartheid. “We can’t sit here and say as South Africa we want to change the situation in Zimbabwe,” he adds. “Some will say they have applied sanctions – have they helped? Some will say, ‘we have condemned him’ – has it helped? ... Why should we change a policy that has so far worked more than any other thing?”

Even when asked pointed questions about his forthcoming trial on 16 charges, including racketeering, fraud and tax evasion, Mr Zuma remains unruffled. “People have a right to ask that question,” he says on how he felt to be quizzed by the BBC ahead of his election on whether he was a crook. “The fact of the matter is that I am not a crook.”

The centrepiece of the case will be his relationship with Schabir Shaik, his former financial adviser who is serving 15 years in prison for soliciting bribes for Mr Zuma from an arms company in connection with a scandal-wracked multi-billion dollar arms deal. Mr Zuma has long denied wrongdoing. A previous trial on corruption charges collapsed on a technicality in 2006.

He argues passionately that he is the victim of a politicised prosecution. His voice rises as he recalls how he heard he had been charged for a second time, while at a children’s Christmas party he hosts each year at his home village in Zululand. “This is not like any case that you have come across. It is a very funny case, very funny. There is something behind it.”

So what will his stewardship of the ANC be remembered for? After the inevitable disclaimer that it is not his party, he says: “How do you describe a man who has not even started? At some point you will be able to say this was Zuma, if at all.” That is the question many are asking: In a year’s time will he be on the brink of assuming the presidency – or going to prison?

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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