By Obi. O. Akwani
MGV Editor

Posted June 04, 2009

President Jacob Zuma has traversed an arduous path to reach the office of President of the Republic of South Africa.

Along the way, a very unflattering portrait was created of him in the South African media; and those of us watching from the outside began to wonder about his suitability for the South African presidency.

For people outside South Africa, Zuma, going by the scandals that trailed him, had begun to look every bit like the typical African politician: unwholesomely complicit in the political intrigues of his country, and marred in institutionally questionable yet personally lucrative acts and conducts.

With two very personally damaging scandals trailing him, it didn’t seem possible that Zuma would, as they say, ‘beat the rap’ and survive with his political career intact; not in the new South Africa, formed out of the terrible crucible of apartheid and informed by a principled sense of justice and right conduct; certainly not in a nation for which the Madiba and his fellow prisoners had held hands and preferred to suffer the hell of apartheid punishment rather than betray their own belief in humanity and forsake their vision for a non-racist South Africa. After all, some other bright stars — Rev Allan Boesak and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela come to mind — who had bravely fought for the freedom of the people of South Africa, had had their political careers eclipsed on account of one or two scandals.

Against all odds, Jacob Zuma is now the president of South Africa. How did he succeed? Why did he succeed?

The scandals seemed to have opened up at rather convenient times. Zuma’s relationship with businessman Schabir Shaik was well known to the government and the ANC since the mid-1990s, but only became a problem after President Thabo Mbeki appointed Zuma his deputy president in June 1999. By October 2000, Judge Willem Heath was investigating an arms deal involving Schabir Shaik in which Zuma’s name had featured as the recipient of bribes to further the deal. Shaik was put on trial in October 2004 and was convicted for corruption, bribery and fraud. Shaik was sentenced on June 7, 2005 to 15 years in prison.

After the Shaik verdict, the heat was directed at Zuma and he accepted to resign his parliamentary seat, but chose to stay on in the cabinet and as deputy president of the ANC. But a great clamor for his removal from government and for him to face corruption charges came from the opposition and from some ANC quarters. One week after the Shaik verdict, on June 14, 2005, President Mbeki, responding to the call of the opposition, removed Zuma from cabinet and as deputy president of South Africa. Zuma’s troubles didn’t end there. Late in the year, he was accused of rape by an HIV-positive young woman. This new charge, and the corruption scandal he was already facing, made things look very bad for Jacob Zuma in 2005. But his popularity among the grassroots within and outside the ANC remained strong. Firing the highly popular Zuma would ultimately cost President Mbeki dearly.

Zuma would eventually be exonerated of the charge of rape. Even after being fired by Mbeki, following the Shaik sentencing, Zuma didn’t seem to immediately take it personally. He hinted that much when he told an interviewer that it was the president’s prerogative, as he tried to limit fallout damage to the ANC and the government, to take the action he took. But after the rape trial began, Zuma’s tone changed. He told another interviewer (Divid Frost on Al Jazeera) that he was convinced “there was something behind her” (the lady accuser). Zuma’s supporters (who are many) also began increasingly to voice their belief and suspicion that his troubles were part of an Mbeki sponsored conspiracy to deny Zuma the presidency.

And so the man, who had learned to fend for himself as a boy cattle herder and stick fighter, began to fight back. In December 2007, Zuma defeated Mbeki in the race for ANC president. After corruption charges were brought against Zuma by Mokotedi Mpshe, Mbeki’s newly handpicked national director of prosecutions, the Zuma team went to work to prove Mbeki’s interference in the process. The evidence they eventually dug up convinced Judge Chris Nicholson that the Mbeki government had interfered with the National Prosecuting Authority’s decision to go after Zuma. Shortly thereafter, the ANC National Executive Council (NEC) voted to ask President Mbeki to step down as head of state. He was replaced by Kgalema Motlanthe pending the 2009 general election.

South Africa is not like any other Africa nation. The South African people were not handed their independence on a platter. Their struggle will never give off the whiff of something choreographed as the independence struggles of so many other African countries suggest. During the struggle against apartheid, the youth of South Africa exhibited great and unrelenting zeal for the struggle. Thanks to the racist obstinacy of the apartheid regime, the issues of right and wrong were as clear as black and white to the freedom fighters. The freedom fighters of South Africa had matured and gained much experience from the struggle. Their youthful desire for vengeance, expressed and articulated in political terms by many of the young fighters, was counterbalanced by the sober leadership of the African National Congress who presented a more constructive vision that became a structural part of the party philosophy and organization. So far, the ANC has shown itself to be not a party that could be bought and it has not allowed itself to be corrupted by blind zeal.

When the ANC first came to power in 1994, it was burdened with the long delayed aspirations, and now unbounded hopes of the South African people. And yet the leaders of the party were realistic enough to know that it was not advisable to move too fast to meet those hopes and aspirations. The nation needed change and South Africans needed homes, jobs and personal security, but the new government could not move as rapidly as the hopes of the people demanded in meeting most of these needs without destroying existing structures when their replacements were not yet in place. Things had to be taken step by step.

So the time of President Nelson Mandela became a period for healing the wounds of the nation and establishing a new order for the march into the future. Thabo Mbeki’s presidency was a time for ANC intellectuals to negotiate with the South African industrial/economic establishment and bring a measure of equity into the economic environment. The rituals of healing the nation were completed within four years, but almost eight years on, the Mbeki program didn’t seem to be making a meaningful impact on the people. Unemployment remains high among poor South Africans, the gap between rich and poor appeared to be widening rather than narrowing. The grassroots of the ANC and the South African people in general grew impatient with the slow pace at which the expected changes were coming.

The Zuma camp had read the mood of the people correctly. South Africans had had enough of the Mbeki intellectuals in charge of government and they also perceived that this group wanted to continue in power. The ANC rank and file had expected that at the end of two terms Thabo Mbeki would step down and allow his deputy, Jacob Zuma, to vie for the nation’s presidency under the ANC flag. But the troubles that began to trail Zuma about half way through Mbeki’s second term pointed to a different agenda. Without Zuma, the Mbeki vision will continue, if not under Mbeki, then it would be under someone else. The Zuma camp did not want that.

Jacob Zume who, at the age of five years, lost his father in 1947, grew up as a cattle herder without formal education and rose out of the ANC grass roots, has never forgotten where he came from. And that appears to be Zuma’s greatest strength. He has remained loyal to the party and has been able to ride the stormy seas of ANC and South African politics, and has triumphed. After the ANC’s victory at the general elections earlier this year, Zuma was elected President of South Africa by parliament in May 2009. His task now remains to fulfill the hopes and dreams of the people.

Though the charges against Zuma have been dropped, it does not mean that they lacked substance. What undid his opponents was their near blind zeal to get Zuma. There is nothing unique about Zuma’s case. Influence peddling is a common thing in politics anywhere in the world. The difference lies in how far the peddlers and their clients are willing to go for personal gain and how much of a prize the minders of the system are willing to pay to bring down the corrupt. In any case, the strong democratic tradition of, and adherence to the rule of law exhibited by, the ANC will most likely prevent most excesses by the hugely popular President Zuma.

Obi O. Akwani is the editor of IMDiversity’s Minorities’ Global Village and the author of Winning Over Racism and the novel, March of Ages. He is a Nigerian Canadian. He lives in Cornwall, Ontario Canada. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.