Zuma Zuuums Into Sunset


(an SA Blog Beta post from Your Correspondent)

Who is that man gracing the cover of every newspaper in the country these days? It’s none other than our erstwhile Deputy President, Jacob Zuma! (He is also our erstwhile peace negotiator in Burundi, erstwhile voice of sanity in government on HIV/AIDS, and – this is where irony bites with extra venom – erstwhile Leader of the Moral Regeneration Movement.)

Zuma is in the headlines for three reasons. First, he has been charged with corruption, and is due to stand trial in a Durban court next year. (One of his erstwhile lieutenants, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of corruption earlier this year – Zuma’s case stems from Shaik’s.)

Second, he has been charged with rape, and will stand trial in a Johannesburg court, also next year.

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And finally, despite the black clouds boiling over his two-courtroom future, he has been shaking the African National Congress leadership tree with mighty force over the past six months, in the apparent hope of dislodging President Thabo Mbeki from his perch at the top, so he can take Mbeki’s place after the 2009 elections. So far, Mbeki seems to be holding fast, but doubtless his knuckles are white.

Zuma’s push for the top job might seem like blind hubris, but he is no joke in ANC circles. He has strong support among the ANC’s allies, such as the trade union COSATU, the SA Communist Party, and the ANC Youth League, and he remains the party’s Number Two – although he’s not allowed to do anything in his official capacity until his trials are over.

The conventional wisdom holds that Zuma’s popularity derives both from his personal style – warm and enthusiastic, in contrast to Mbeki’s beady-eyed, icy-cold strategizing – and from the theory that he is a “friend of the political left” who will steer SA in a more socialist direction once he becomes President. The latter claim appears to have a shaky justification at best – there’s not too much evidence of the “socialist Zuma,” although it is true that he has been the only major ANC politician to talk sense on AIDS, a major issue of the left’s.

The Hurricane 5 bunfight of which Zuma is currently the eye formed at the edge of South Africa’s radar screen in 2004, when Bulelani Ngcuka, who was then the country’s top prosecutor, announced publicly that there was “prima facie” evidence of Zuma’s corruption, but that the Deputy President would not be charged in court. In Your Correspondent’s view, that’s basically slander. Zuma was duly aggrieved, and some of his supporters arranged to have Ngcuka hauled through a public inquisition, dealing with the question of whether he was a spy for the apartheid government.

Ngcuka came out smelling like roses, but then quit his post (the heat in the kitchen was scalding at that point), but not before launching the case against Shaik. Shaik was found guilty. The judge in the trial said Shaik’s relationship with Zuma was patently corrupt. On the basis that it’s not good for a country’s Deputy President to be tainted with corruption, Mbeki fired Zuma. Then – wait for it – he replaced Zuma with Bulelani Ngcuka’s wife.

The conspiracy theorists have gone wild, of course – and sympathy for Zuma as a victim of an Mbeki-orchestrated plot surges to new highs each day. With the rape charge, however, Zuma’s high-noon showdown with Mbeki seems to have been swapped for a new scene – a lonely ride into the sunset.

SA Blog will continue to watch this brutal political battle – through binoculars.