Last Friday, a court in Pietermaritzburg threw out pending corruption charges against Jacob Zuma for procedural reasons and decided not to press ahead with his prosecution. The ruling did nothing to establish Zuma's guilt or innocence, and he may face future charges down the road. Still, it was a significant victory, and thousands of his supporters took to the streets, waving banners and dancing outside the court. Indoors, a visibly relieved Zuma greeted well-wishers and shook hands. His joy was easy to understand. At 67, Zuma, who's been head of the ruling African National Congress since December of last year, is the presumptive favorite to become the country's next president when elections are held in 2009.
Fighting off criminal charges is hardly a normal stage in attaining higher office. But then Jacob Zuma is no normal politician. He's a flamboyant former antiapartheid leader and exile who served as deputy president of South Africa from 1999 to 2005 before breaking with President Thabo Mbeki and later seizing the reins of the ANC. While his rise has been impressive, he's been dogged by controversy throughout his career. He's been accused of racketeering, fraud and money laundering, and the charges, along with Zuma's outsize persona, have fanned fears at home and abroad that he represents a dark turn for South Africa: away from the enlightened leadership of the country's early years as a multiracial democracy and toward the sort of big-man politics that have long blighted much of the continent. According to his opponents, Zuma is uneducated, corrupt and venal. As Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC colleague and political commentator, puts it, Zuma "doesn't have the moral integrity to lead the ANC or South Africa. His organization is characterized by thuggery."
That, at least, is the conventional wisdom. In fact, a very different Jacob Zuma has started to emerge in recent months—one often overshadowed by the drama, but who offers some real hope for the country he plans to lead. Much of the controversy surrounding him is deserved. Unlike his scholarly predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, Zuma has had little formal education. Though he's so far dodged corruption charges and he was acquitted of rape in 2006, he has admitted to having unprotected sex with the woman in question, who was HIV-positive—and Zuma claimed afterward that a cold shower was all it took to ward off the disease. He is also a proud Zulu traditionalist with four wives, an unknown number of children and a fondness for bloodthirsty war songs (such as "Bring Me My Machine Gun"). All this tends to scare the daylights out of South Africa's elites and foreign investors.
But the new head of the ANC has begun taking pains to improve his image, reaching out to various constituencies and preaching moderation. In fact, on some key issues, this longtime leftist has recently begun sounding downright conservative. "One of the great ironies is that Zuma [now] sounds like a U.S. Republican," says Stephen Friedman, a newspaper columnist and a research associate at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. "He wants tougher action against crime and freer markets. Any white person in the suburbs who's listening and getting alarmed is clearly just feeding off prejudice."
In the last decade or so, South Africa has boasted 6 percent annual growth, strong job creation, high foreign investment and smart fiscal policies. The inflation rate is solidly average for an emerging market and will probably be lower than China's in the coming year. Maintaining this kind of macroeconomic stability is key to Zuma's success, and he's taken pains to stress his commitment to it on visits with foreign capital investors. These efforts are bearing fruit. As one London-based banker with interests in South Africa recently put it, "we are not concerned about the changeover in leadership. Most people I speak to in London are relatively relaxed. Some feel that because Zuma is a populist, there could be some destruction of the public sector. But that's an uninformed view."
Within South Africa, large chunks of the population have been left behind by the boom. The poverty rate is easing, but slowly. According to Development Indicators 2008, the proportion of people living below the poverty line dropped from 58 percent in 2000 to 48 percent in 2005. Unemployment remains high. Crime is huge problem, with an average of 50 people murdered per day nationwide. And the shortage of low-cost housing for the poor—a longtime problem—sparked a wave of anti-foreigner violence early this summer that killed dozens of immigrants and forced tens of thousands more to flee the country.
Zuma is trying to position himself as the answer to these ills. His rise stands in part as a direct rebuke to Mbeki, whose second term in office runs out next year. Though initially well respected, Mbeki has proved a colossal disappointment for South Africa. His autocratic style has provoked resentment, as has his inattention toward the poor and the dysfunctional bureaucracy. And his "quiet diplomacy" failed to soften the repression of neighboring Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. These shortcomings have left South Africa "hungry for leadership," says Aubrey Matshiqi, an analyst at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg.
Zuma's election as the head of the ANC last December was as much a vote against Mbeki as an endorsement of the new man. But Zuma is using the opportunity he's been given to push for real change. During the worst days of the Zimbabwe crisis this summer, when Mbeki seemed to be sitting on his hands, Zuma's old trade-union pals and Communist Party allies sprang into action, refusing, for example, to unload a shipment of Chinese arms bound for Mugabe's thugs. Zuma also publicly slammed Mugabe for engineering the violence.
At home, Zuma has proposed tackling South Africa's terrible violent-crime problem by rejiggering the legal system to "bias" it in favor of victims—and if that doesn't work, has hinted he might favor reinstating the death penalty. On issues ranging from education to affirmative action, he's begun staking out the middle ground, highlighting Mbeki's failures while using his own considerable charm to win over skeptics. "Compared to Mbeki, [Zuma] looks like a better alternative," says Matshiqi. Zuma is "less mean-spirited, and more connected to the concerns of ordinary citizens," he says. "He has an easy rapport with people," adds Adam Habib, of the University of Johannesburg. "And every time Mbeki creates a disaster, Zuma comes to the fore."
The president-in-waiting has taken great pains to polish his tarnished image. He's publicly apologized for the shower comment and has criticized the Mbeki government for not doing enough to curb HIV infections (about 11 percent of the population carries the virus). Zuma has also begun ardently wooing international investors. Since January, he's traveled to Paris, New York and Davos, meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and representatives of Lehman Brothers and other investors, promised to listen to economic advice and stick to the established course. Perhaps most remarkable, Zuma has even reached out to South Africa's whites, scoring major points with a recent visit to a community of poor Afrikaners outside Johannesburg, where he argued that their plight mirrored that of the country's black underclass. Zuma has also deployed senior ANC officials to meet with Afrikaner groups in places like Pretoria and Stellenbosch, the intellectual heartland of Afrikaner culture, to reassure them of their place in South African society. "This has gone over very well," says Frederic Van Zyl Slabbert, chancellor of Stellenbosch University. "Zuma is saying [to whites] that the past is over."
To reinforce this notion, Zuma has proposed reforming South Africa's affirmative action programs in a way that would protect skilled whites and stem the massive brain drain that is crippling South Africa's health-care, scientific and engineering communities. To help him formulate this and other middle-of-the-road policies, Zuma has surrounded himself with a small but effective group of experts who recommend modest, almost boring changes of course, with nothing to rock the boat. One of Zuma's closest advisers, Gwede Mantashe, recently met with a group of asset managers, accountants and stockbrokers in Cape Town to press this point home. Mantashe is a communist, but instead of talking about revolution, he discussed ways to accelerate South Africa's rate of investment, fight crime and develop a progressive social safety net. "I would be telling you a lie if I said there wasn't going to be change," he told the group. "But this isn't about business versus the poor, it's about creating an environment for business while tending to the needs of the poor."
Such attitudes have impressed observers. "If Zuma relies on this corps of serious-minded people, and reaches out to experts, I think South Africa will be in a much better position," says Mampele Ramphele, a prominent academic and businesswoman. She says that Zuma's message is, "'We know something, but we're going to listen to the experts and mold a concrete plan forward.' I'm very encouraged." "Zuma has done a good job the last couple of months," adds senior associate at Saint Anthony's College Oxford William Gumede. "He says, 'Look, I know I've been seen as a monster, but I'm not'." Gumede, who has met privately with many of the investors after the fact to assess their reactions, says that Zuma's audiences have been impressed. Whereas Mbeki talked in riddles, he says, Zuma is straightforward about his plans and open to advice. "Of the businesspeople I've spoken with, 98 percent of them feel maybe he's not so bad."
Even some skeptics are starting to come around. As the Institute for Democracy's Friedman, who has also been meeting with some of South Africa's top CEO's to assess their reactions to Zuma, explains, "The first question I ask is, who thinks Jacob Zuma will be a problem. Eighty-six percent say yes. But my next question is, who thinks their company should engage Zuma? Eighty-six percent also say yes. There are other people they'd be more likely to trust, but they recognize the need to talk to him." Chief executives from top companies like Anglo-American, Investec and others have begun working with Zuma to chart a path forward, and Zuma has talked about establishing a "pact" between businesses, government and unions to address problems like low wages, strikes and inflation. This is "something Mbeki didn't ever do," says Gumede, and "that's what we need in South Africa."
Of course, none of this guarantees Zuma will prove good for South Africa. The criminal charges against him have caused chaos that could mount. His long-term legal problems aren't over: Zuma's onetime business partner, Shabir Shaik, has been jailed for bribing none other than Zuma himself. Shaik's appeals to the Supreme Court have failed three times in the past six months. And Zuma's bid to block prosecutors from obtaining evidence against him have failed, too. Every day, newspapers are filled with new developments, undermining the public trust Zuma is trying to create. And he could still be convicted.
Critics also point out that while Zuma may have moderated his style and substance, many of his supporters have become more radical. The opposition Democratic Alliance plans to pursue charges against the sitting president of the ANC's Youth League for saying that he and others like him would "kill for Zuma." And judges on the Constitutional Court have accused John Hlophe of Cape Town's high court of trying to improperly influence other jurists to rule in favor of Zuma (charges Hlophe rejects). "The state and the ruling party have become largely contemptuous of the legal system," says Feinstein. "I have a sense that they're prepared to undermine the rule of law constantly to get their objectives." He may have a point: no less a figure than Don Mkwanazi, the chairman of the Friends of Jacob Zuma (an organization that aims to raise several million dollars for the leader's legal defense), says that "in African culture, if I give Zuma a gift, it's normal; it's not a bribe. Some of my own white colleagues think Zuma is tainted, but not the majority of black South Africans. This is not London or Geneva—this is Africa."
Such comments alarm critics. So does the fact that some Zuma supporters are pushing for a political solution to his corruption charges. Helen Zille, the leader of South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance party, calls this an attempt to undermine the Constitution and put South Africa on a path toward "lawlessness."
While such worries are well founded, Zuma's detractors had best come to terms with the man. He's still popular within the ANC and the hands-down favorite to become the country's next leader. And while aspects of his personality may seem scary, his roots as a peacemaker run deep. Zuma is now credited with helping end the postapartheid violence that racked KwaZulu-Natal province in the late '80s and '90s, when the ANC and the rival Inkatha party faced off over who would lead the province under the new government. The fact that violence was avoided "is largely because of Zuma laying the groundwork and relentlessly pursuing the peace process, and exhausting everyone through talks," says Mike Sutcliffe, Durban city manager and an Mbeki supporter.
If Zuma is going to hold South Africa together, he'll need to capitalize on such skills. When Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, thousands of South Africans fled the country fearing that he'd nationalize the country's biggest industries and make other radical moves. That didn't happen, and now many of the refugees wish they had stayed behind. Zuma has proposed nothing nearly as dramatic, yet South Africans are once again fleeing; though statistics are hard to come by, a recent bank survey showed that the proportion of homeowners trying to sell because they are emigrating has doubled in the last six months. "We're going to take a hit, and that's a dilemma," says Habib. But South Africa has been through tougher times, and if Zuma succeeds with the agenda he's proposed, his constituents—white, black, rich, poor—could all benefit from it.