A president’s first-hundred-days milestone isn’t as breathlessly awaited in other countries as it is in America. And so South African President Jacob Zuma—the dancing populist who provoked so much fear and loathing before his inauguration in May—was scheduled to spend Aug. 15 prosaically, without any intentional symbolism booked into his diary. He was to hold a winter rally in a sleepy Bloemfontein suburb and to meet with some Afrikaner businessmen in the city hall downtown. But Zuma’s pedestrian hundredth day actually made a perfect tableau of his presidency thus far, an emblem in miniature of why his popularity has soared since his inauguration without really being deserved.
At Zuma’s city-hall meeting, one Afrikaner cracked a wry joke about Zuma’s theme song, “Um’shini Wam’,” which means “Bring Me My Machine Gun” in Zulu. The lusty, bottom-wiggling refrains that Zuma led at his campaign rallies did more than anything else to fuel his reputation among whites as an unstable revolutionary—another Robert Mugabe in waiting. But ever looking to woo his doubters, Zuma vowed to the businessmen that as soon as he returned to his office, he would appoint somebody to translate “Um’shini Wam’ ” into Afrikaans, so even the Afrikaners could join in the new national fun. It was so Zuma: charming, conciliatory, winsomely dismissive of all the old, supposedly intractable divisions. But it wasn’t a trick of his own design. Zuma was only following the template laid out by Nelson Mandela—a template Mandela’s successors have had to follow if they want to stay popular, regardless of their wonkier achievements or failures.
Mandela rightly occupies an untouched place in the South African imagination. He’s the national liberator, the savior, its Washington and Lincoln rolled into one. Whenever you give a speech here, you refer to Mandela as “the Icon.” And in his time, Mandela’s transcendent forgiveness and his flair for reconciliatory symbolism was what midwifed the South African miracle. But his distinctive style also established huge expectations—imagine if every pope were expected to render wine from water—and left South Africans thinking that a president’s function is to nurture the national mood as much as it is to get things done. Fusing shut the national wounds was Mandela’s raison d’être, and subsequent South African presidents have been judged by their talent for mimicking him.
It’s no stretch to say that Mandela’s template helped ruin Thabo Mbeki’s presidency. When the torch passed from Mandela to Mbeki in 1999, the mission of government began to move from healing the country psychologically to the grittier task of integrating black South Africans into the economic-transformation programs that Mbeki and his allies put in place. Those programs yielded real dividends: economic growth and decreases in debt and inflation. But Mbeki’s nurturing skills—or woeful lack thereof—filled as many newspaper-column inches as his economic designs. “Where Mr. Mandela projects warmth of spirit and generosity, Mr. Mbeki appears manipulative and calculating,” South Africa’s Sunday Times damned him in an editorial. “Where Mr. Mandela inspires affection, even love, Mr. Mbeki evokes uncertainty and fear.” The hypersensitive Mbeki recoiled at what he considered this “Mandela exceptionalism,” and his biographer Mark Gevisser suggests that his disastrous tolerance of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwean crimes stemmed from his outrage that the world believed any African head of state who was not Mandela was a villain.
Zuma has all the natural charm, the ease in his own skin, the Mandela-esque warmth, that Mbeki lacked. At his inaugural, Zuma signaled he would abandon Mbeki’s dry, technocratic style and asked the electorate to judge him according to the old example set by Mandela: “Madiba healed our wounds and established the rainbow nation very firmly,” Zuma explained, using Mandela‘s beloved nickname. “He made reconciliation the central theme of his term of office. We will not deviate from that nation-building task. Thank you, Madiba, for showing us the way.” Zuma—on his very first day—was acknowledging that he would be judged by his adherence to the Madiba style.
The new president has adhered carefully to these demands. His Bloemfontein summit recalled one of Mandela’s most famous moments: the 1995 Rugby World Cup in Johannesburg, when Mandela donned a South African rugby jersey (itself a huge gesture, since rugby was the Afrikaners’ favorite sport and anti-apartheid activists generally hated it) and taught the mostly white South African team how to sing “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” the trademark song of the anti-apartheid struggle. Like biblical lepers informed that they had been cured and could step out in public again, the stadium full of Afrikaners reacted overwhelmingly to Mandela’s effort to fuse shut the national wounds. “Nel-son! Nel-son!” they chanted. Zuma’s Afrikaner businessmen ate up his own bid at fusion with equal gusto: one businessman even helped the president begin his translation, instructing him on how to pronounce “Bring die masjien geveer!,” which Zuma then yelped from the city-hall stage. It’s the Mandela moments that have been stoking Zuma’s popularity here—wherein he channels Mandela’s style of the leader as racial therapist, as emotional healer, as dispenser of national grace.
South Africans are keen to hold up their end of the bargain. Since moving here on Election Day in April, I’ve been struck by how much the vocabulary of therapy infuses the local assessment of Zuma’s strengths: Is he a good listener? Do people feel soothed that he in charge? One newspaper recently marveled at how Zuma “listened intently to the grievances” of the residents of a desperately poor black township in the northeastern Mpumalanga province, while another quoted a white Afrikaner swooning that “Zuma is a good listener.” “We only talked for a couple of minutes, but it was amazing how he made me feel like I what I had to say was important,” a Johannesburg reporter told me when I asked him what he thought of Zuma. Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a notorious Zuma skeptic, has become a public convert. “He connects with people more easily than [Mbeki],” Tutu told the Sunday Times last week, going on to distinguish him from the cold Mbeki with a word so often used to characterize Mandela: “He has a genuine warmth.”
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of concrete presidential work that needs doing: the poverty data that exist—it’s hard to come by reliable figures here—suggest that the lives of the poorest South Africans have not improved since 1994. Officially, one quarter of the population is unemployed, one of the worst rates in the world. During his campaign Zuma promised to create 500,000 new jobs by the end of this year and 4 million by 2014. But most attention was focused on the brand of ostentatious outreach (he cosseted Afrikaners during his campaign by assuring them they were “the only true white Africans”) he took from Mandela.
It’s too early to judge Zuma’s presidency, but he has made several errors of the kind you wouldn’t expect to inflate his popularity: some early appointments for crucial posts (on the national police commission, for example) have gone to political allies, and others have been botched completely (a new Constitutional Court chief justice was announced, then de-announced; Zuma blamed “a slip of the tongue, literally”). As for those 500,000 new jobs, the anticipated rollout of a national health-insurance plan, and the awaited change of direction on Zimbabwe—there hasn’t been too much at all. Yet instead of public disillusionment, his popularity grows every day. Thirty-six percent of South Africans felt positive about him last November; 52 percent in April; and 57 percent today.
But as the years stretch away from South Africa’s agonizing democratic transition, the president-as-healer is becoming less and less what the country really needs. Zuma could turn out to be every bit the president people already think he is, but he should be measured by results: South Africa needs a doctor for its material ailments now, not a psychiatrist for its emotional ones. This is the dark side to Mandela’s legacy in South Africa: the instinct to reward or punish every president for being more or less like him, whereas Mandela’s brilliance lay in just how well his character fit the sui generis moment in which he governed.