Millions of South Africans head to the polls next week in the country's fourth democratic presidential election. But 15 years after the fall of apartheid, the nation feels increasingly under threat. The ruling African National Congress is split, brain drain is sapping the economy and the leading contender for president, 67-year-old Jacob Zuma, is a divisive figure known mostly for corruption and rape charges he's spent the last decade battling. Zuma overcame his last legal challenges earlier this month, but many South Africans worry he's not up to the task ahead. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Karen MacGregor this month, just days after his court victory.
MacGregor: Many people believe you are a victim of a political conspiracy. But others believe you got away with an infringement.
Zuma: It's not true, it's not many people. It is few people who are able to write articles. The majority [was] celebrating all over the country. They think justice has been done, because they know that my rise has been interfered with. I have been saying for a number of years now there was a political conspiracy. But I don't have ill feelings. I'm not going for revenge.
What book are you reading, if you have time?
[Laughs] I'm reading a few books at the same time. One is "The Dream Deferred" [by Mark Gevisser]. I'm also reading "Zuma: A Biography." Not that I read too much.
What are your thoughts on Barack Obama?
When the race started I asked myself a question: "Are the American people, where the majority are white, ready for a black president?" I don't think anyone was going to give a right answer at that point. I'm sure the majority of us would have said not, because it hadn't happened. It went on and on and on and the American people proved they were ready for a black president.
You will become the first Zulu president of South Africa.
It is not the first time that a Zulu leads the ANC. The difference now is that the ANC is in power. The Zulu-ness is not the big issue. We don't look at things from that point of view. I've always looked at myself first as a South African, a black South African who always fought for the interests of the oppressed.
Julius Malema [president of the ANC Youth League and a Zuma supporter] sometimes comes across as racist and as divisive. What role do you see for him in your new government?
First, I haven't read anything from Julius that's racist. Yes, I have heard him being quite controversial. Many politicians are controversial. Personally, I see in Julius a potential leader of the ANC who is growing up, who is still very young, who is very much prepared to learn.
Do you think your efforts to fight corruption might be undermined by the saga that's just ended for you?
Why will it undermine it? People have a perception that once allegations are made, a person is corrupt. It is actually wrong. I'm finding it quite interesting—because it is Jacob Zuma allegations that are made, people assume they are real. And that therefore Zuma has a problem. I've never been corrupt and I'm fighting corruption within my organization.
At the moment the system takes too long to deal with corrupt people. We are going to be quite harsh in dealing with [them]. We are developing a planning commission that is going to have the holistic picture of the government. We are going to have performance monitoring.
With the world in full-blown economic crisis, have you changed your mind at all about the model required for South Africa?
No, you can't change, you can't change. It means like if you are wearing size six or something, and because there is starvation and reduced weight you have to cut your cloth according to the size. But still wear the same cloth. In terms of the approach, the programs, the objectives will remain the same.
Are there any particular policies that [will be] a priority once you become president?
No, that has been defined by the ANC in its last conference. I can't introduce new policies. What I am talking about is what the ANC has said we need to do. I cannot have Jacob Zuma economic policies. They are going to remain ANC policies.
Much of the blame for South Africa's inaction against HIV epidemic has been heaped on [ex-president] Thabo Mbeki by your supporters. Is that fair?
I'm reluctant to discuss Mbeki. Personally. I don't think it would be a prudent thing for me to do. But I think it is important to say the AIDS policy has been correct in South Africa. It has been good. In fact it has been recognized by the World Health Organization as one of the best programs. What affected this was a personal view of Mbeki's [on] whether HIV caused AIDS. People tended to take the view of an individual and made it the policy of the government. It was a mistake.
[Your supporters] have called for revenge against the perpetrators of the conspiracy against you.
I've got no ill feelings, I'm not going to revenge to anyone. But I believe where people have committed a crime, the law-enforcement agencies are there to deal with that. I don't think we need to politicize that. We need to move forward. We need to govern the country.