One thing that I quickly realized upon arriving in South Africa is that the political landscape of this country is exceedingly complex. My group arrived at a very unstable time it appears. On our 3 channel television, my gogo and I watch the news twice a night (the English one for me, the isiZulu or Xhosa one for her). Just about every night there is a few mentions of one man—Zuma. Catching minivans into the city or walking along the crowded, littered streets of downtown Durban, there are endless newspapers, signs, and billboards with the name of “Zuma” scrawled across. Once, a few weeks ago, our class was scheduled to go on an excursion to the Victorian market, a hub of culture and trade. When we arrived, a policeman immediately came up to our leaders, Thula and Nat, and implored us to go back where we came from. We were told it was unsafe. I later learned that there was some sort of march or rally occurring for Zuma nearby. It is a well-known fact that Zuma supporters are often radical in their loyalty—many claim that they would even go so far as to kill for him in a heartbeat.
But then, who is Jacob Zuma anyway?
The answer to my question did not come all at once. For a man as complex as Jacob Zuma, there is no such thing as a clear cut answer. In the eyes of South Africa Jacob Zuma is, all at once, a hero and a villain, a liberator and an oppressor. He is both ignorant and wise. Both a murderer and victim. To describe him is to describe the deep division that continues to tear apart South Africans long after the fall of apartheid.
By now, you are undoubtedly as confused by these contractions as I was. I have been here over a month, and I am just now beginning to get a hold (albeit, a tenuous one) on the background and impact of the man they call Jacob Zuma. Born here, in what is now known as the Province of KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma did not receive any formal schooling after grade 5—he is primarily self taught. When he was 17, he joined the African National Congress, a political party focused on increasing the rights of black South African people. He was very outspoken and active during the apartheid era, and eventually served 10 years in prison for conspiring to overthrow the government. He served his time on Robben Island, alongside Nelson Mandela and other notable ANC leaders who were also imprisoned there at the time.
After his release, he played a key role in the re-establishment of the ANC underground. He lived in several African countries all the while working diligently for the ANC, eventually climbing his way up its ranks.
In 1999, Zuma was appointed Executive Deputy President of South Africa (can be liken to the position of vice president) by ANC president Thabo Mbeki after Mbeki won the presidency. It was widely believed that he would be the heir apparent to the presidency after Thabo Mbeki stepped down.
And here is where the story starts to get crazy. Later that year, the South Africa government announced a 29 million rand deal in which it would buy a bevy of strategic arms, including boats, planes, helicopters and submarines. Members of the government, including Jacob Zuma, were subsequently investigated when financial “irregularities” were discovered with the deal. In 2001, corruption charges were brought against Jacob Zuma but those charges were dropped in 2003. This was far from Zuma’s only brush with the law; in 2005, corruption charges resurfaced for him after his financial advisor, Shabir Shaik, was convicted of corruption and fraud himself. Zuma’s new corruption charge (still in connection with the 1999 arms deal) led President Thabo Mbeki to take drastic measures—Zuma was relieved from his duties as Deputy President.
Zuma’s dismissal tore the ANC in half—it became evident that Zuma and Mbeki represented different constituencies within the African National Congress. Theories about a conspiracy to stop the ascendancy of Jacob Zuma took voice in his supporters.
Zuma is particularly popular in the Zulu community; the anthem of pro-Zuma crowds in the apartheid-era struggle song “Lethu Mshini Wami” which translate literally to mean “bring me my machine” (referring to a machine gun). At one court date, Zuma supporters went so far as to burn t-shirts with Mbeki’s picture on them. His supporters were for the most part unfazed by the charges brought against him, and his credibility as a political figure remained, even after his dismissal.
Things got even worse for Zuma in 2005, when rape charges were brought against him. The accuser was a 31-year-old family friend, known to be HIV-positive. While Zuma vehemently denied the charges when they were raised, by the end of the trial, he agreed that the act did in fact happen—but was consensual. He admitted to having unprotected sex with her, claiming that he took a shower afterward to cut the risk of contracting HIV. For a country in the middle of a war against the biggest AIDS epidemic in the world, this statement, and its implications, were of great consequence. After a ruling that the sex was consensual, Zuma was acquitted of the charge in 2006. Once again, Zuma supporters suggested an Mbeki-led political conspiracy against him. The split between Zuma’s supporters and Mbeki’s supporters became even more pronounced.
Even now, there is talk of a possible civil war. I have overheard the whispers, detected the undertones, even in Cato Manor. Themba, a friend of mine here in Cato, believes that this notion is not so far-fetched: “This is how it felt in ‘94” he said. (referring to the tension created by the changing government).
A few days ago, Thabo Mbeki formally resigned as President. This came a few days after the dismissal of a trial against Zuma (linked once again to the 1999 South African Arms Deal), where in the ruling, inferences were made to possible political interference by Mbeki and others in his prosecution. The dismissal of this case was crucial for Zuma and his supporters—should Jacob Zuma have been convicted of corruption and sentenced to a term of imprisonment longer than 1 year, he would have been ineligible to serve as President of South Africa.
I remember watching the news with my gogo as it was reported that the charges against Zuma had been dropped. She was screaming and cheering at the top of her lungs; and as for Mbeki, whenever his picture was shown, she literally booed him. “He’s a liar!” she told me adamantly. Knowing what I know of Zuma’s past run-ins with the courts, personal relationships (he’s a self-proclaimed polygamist with 18 children), and views on AIDS, I cannot help but question the reasoning behind her support of him. But she is set in beliefs—and though I considered questioning her, I instead sat silently, in my usual spot on the couch, as the news droned on in the background.