The Irony of a Zuma Presidency

by Rejoice Ngwenya

Jacob ZumaJacob Zuma, South Africa’s new questionable African National Congress (ANC) president has a political destiny already sealed with fate. Those who believe that his electoral victory will emit ‘shock waves’ in and beyond South Africa simply do not understand the political game plan in the ANC.

A Zuma victory, however thin or wide portend bad omen for 21st century politics even in Africa. Not least because 21st century politics is immune to socialist rhetoric, but that South Africans are wise enough to know that sacrificing hard-won regional and continental dominance on the altar of simplistic populism come 2009 will be suicidal.

Zuma’s ascendancy to the ANC throne leaves us with a relative historical reflection about his roots. Jacob Zuma belongs to the Zulu tribal lineage, known for its authoritarian military antics under Tshaka Zulu and by extension, though less dramatic under Chief Gahsha Buthelezi.

We are aware that Buthelezi tried to impose the political influence of the Zulu on contemporary South Africa through his Inkatha Movement, his effort met with dismal failure. Moreover, his flirtation with the Apartheid regime left a permanent scar that sent repulsive signals to a nation wanting nothing short of absolute victory over the oppressors. Zulus therefore remained completely overshadowed in the ANC hierarchy, and ironically, many skeptics believed the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) was a better forum for Zulus to express their nationalist sentiments than the Xhosa dominated ANC. And yet the mere fact that ANC liberation fighters used the Umkhonto weSizwe brand, a Zulu term that means ‘spear of the nation’, the significance of the Zulu content in the ANC – which is what Zuma symbolises – now cannot be ignored. But I have strong doubts whether this suffices as a signal tune to Zuma’s ascendancy to the throne.

For South Africa, the phenomenon of a new national president emerging out of an ANC political process is nothing strange. After all it is the party that produced great characters like Albert Sisulu, Oliver Thambo and of course, global icon Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. But to say Jacob Zuma will substitute a ‘great name’ in the person of Thabo Mbeki would be an illusion. Most South Africans believe Mbeki’s soft-touch approach to the national crises of HIV/Aids, unemployment and crime are blight to the ANC. A Polokwane based weekly, The Speaker, adds: "His [Mbeki] uneven handed way he dealt with the Health Minister Manto Chabalala Msimang vs her deputy Nosisive Routledge; and the NPA boss Vusi Pikoli vs Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi’s criminal allegations all contributed to his downfall." This means the average black South African, Abensundu or Uluntu, come 2009 will be elated to see Mbeki’s political future bleak. But there is a catch to this irony. If, according to the ANC constitution, Polokwane 2008 has ‘produced a future president’ in Zuma, South Africans, technically, must ready themselves for a populist Zulu cadre as national leader. This predictive model may sound totally inconsistent with a constitutional democracy that hosts ‘big’ political contestants like the PAC, Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Inkatha Movement, but the politics of South Africa is mutually exclusive – black or white. How inconceivable it is that a nation that suffered four centuries of white-on-black oppression can vote for a white president, even if it is a contest between Helen Zille’s superior liberal DA ideology and Zuma’s socialist rhetoric!

Thabo Mbeki, despite his political transgressions and acclaimed ‘aloofness’, casts a humble impression of an intellectual ideologue who understands the importance of business and property rights. This explains why ANC’s potpourri of socialist, communist and labour membership co-exists with Black Economic Empowerment of the Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa’s. But if black South Africans vote for Zuma in 2009, they will be doing it in the full knowledge that he is a man who pays no homage to issues of HIV/Aids, women’s rights and business integrity, although they would rather live with this, than either with another Thabo Mbeki term or Helen Zille. If this sounds confusing, the National Prosecuting Authority, South Africa’s version of FBI has the answer.

According to current court records, Jacob Zuma has ‘a criminal history’ that can wreck anybody’s political career. But perhaps like an American Whitehouse soapie, sex scandals and money games play a minor role in political credibility in South Africa. Yet as you read this article, the NPA has concluded that Jacob Zuma, who survived a rape conviction by a hair’s breadth, definitely has many cases to answer on his relationship with the jailed fraudster Shabir Schaik. Political analysts agree that this is neither a case of circumstantial evidence nor political harassment. Therefore if Zuma is convicted, that will signal the end of his flirtation with national presidency, in which case his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe may run Pretoria after 2009. If Zuma survives, South Africans will find themselves head on with fate – a president with a ‘criminal’ history, but then, will all the members of the African Unity that are ‘clean’ please raise your right hands!

For us poor Zimbabweans, we would be caught between a rock and a hard place. Mark Gevisser’s biography: Thabo Mbeki, The Dream Deferred reveals that Mbeki has a favour to return to habitual autocrat Robert Mugabe. The ruling party ZANUpf had ‘bad’ relations with ANC during both countries’ liberation struggles, not least because of ideological differences, but that Oliver Thambo simply preferred the friendship of the more aristocratic Joshua Nkomo, Mugabe’s fierce and credible political rival. After Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, ANC’s Umkhonto weSizwe, whose fighters had been on duty with Nkomo ‘s ZIPRA cadres in Rhodesia, needed a military rearguard in Zimbabwe, so Mbeki was assigned the delicate task of negotiating for this critical passage with a hostile Mugabe. Thus for Zimbabweans who have been clamouring for South Africa to take ‘drastic’ action as a catalyst for rapid political change, Mbeki’s inevitable departure is a blessing in disguise, because Zuma not only has strong Umkhonto weSizwe tendencies, but his Zulu ancestry tallies with the late Joshua Nkomo ‘s Matebele lineage. Mind you, Zimbabweans have all the reasons to be more optimistic about Zuma’s ‘hard-line approach’ on Mugabe because the latter is not only accused of having massacred twenty thousand Zuma’s ‘Zulu descendants’ in Matebeleland, but also that ZANUpf resents strategic alliances between COSATU – Zuma’s key ally – and MDC, Mugabe’s arch enemy. However, were Zuma’s brand of populist politics to destroy the South African economy, three million Zimbabwean economic exiles, who to date sustain Harare’s fragile economy, would be ‘dead and buried’. But for Africa, it is another feather in the cap of leaders who have blood, semen and funny money on their hands. Do the SADC and AU really care?

This syndicated article by was written by Rejoice Ngwenya, Zimbabwean Freemarket Activist and Political Analyst based in Harare. Send him an email at