The anxiety over the selection of Jacob Zuma as president of South Africa obscures a significant milestone: For the first time in decades a sub-Saharan nation has at its helm a champion of the ordinary person.
African politics has long been the preserve of aristocrats, soldiers and technocrats. Even with the spread of democratic elections, the region’s leaders tend to come from the ranks of soldiers (Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe), family dynasties (Togo, Kenya, Botswana), or university professors, lawyers and economists (Ghana, Malawi, Liberia). Now South Africa – the economic and cultural engine of the African continent, home to its most sophisticated universities, media and corporations – has a former goat herder as its president, a rare African leader with the common touch.
Zuma is legendary for his ability to connect with ordinary people. He’s secure enough to dance and sing in public. He speaks the language of populism, raising hopes for the vast majority of South Africans who daily endure the misery of poor housing, schools and healthcare.
In contrast to his two predecessors – the saintly Nelson Mandela, who emphasized racial healing, and the aristocratic Thabo Mbeki, who reassured financiers with his strong grasp of macroeconomics – Zuma recognizes that poor people have largely been ignored in post-apartheid South Africa. “We have learnt from the mistakes of the past 15 years, especially the manner in which we may have, to some degree, neglected the people’s movement,” he said in April, before his African National Congress swept to victory.
South Africa is the wealthiest African nation but also the nation where wealth is most unequally shared. Now, a bold populist holds ultimate power over government policy in the country. That has important implications for the region, still the world’s poorest. Until now, populism has been the missing note in African political culture. Zuma – who spent his youth herding goats and only gained formal education while in prison with Mandela – is refreshingly aware of the inequalities within Africa.
Differences in economic class are especially large in South Africa, hence the prominence of Zuma’s populist appeals. Yet his appeals have raised fears. The new president has been called a chameleon, accused of telling his audiences what they want to hear. His turbulent personal life – at least four marriages and his humiliating assertion during a rape trial that he gained immunity from HIV by taking a shower – has invited ridicule. And, doubts persist about his commitment to democracy, with critics arguing he’s an old-style African “big man” ready to bully opponents and ravage public coffers with his cronies.
Dismissing complaints, Zuma insists, “There’s no cloud around me.” In an Africa bereft of successful populist politicians, Zuma’s role models could well come from Latin America, where income inequality is also extreme and the trade-union movement, as in South Africa, is strong and militant. Under pressure from ordinary people to deliver tangible gains, Zuma will quickly face a major test: Will he emulate Lula of Brazil, who has struck an admirable balance between good economic governance and re-distribution of wealth to the poor? Or will he follow the path of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s popular autocrat?
The stakes for Africa are enormous, creating a sense of urgency for Zuma, who is, after all, 67 years old and likely to serve only a single term in office. “We can’t waste time,” he says.
Yet at his core, “Zuma is a conservative,” says Moeletsi Mbeki, a South African political economist. He represents yesterday’s South Africa and is part of the proud generation that defeated apartheid and then peacefully engineered a transition to durable black-majority rule. Yet Zuma’s revolutionary generation still seems uneasy leading South Africa in the now 15-year-old post-apartheid era.
Three in 10 South Africans are younger than 15; they did not live even a day under apartheid. Zuma must find a way to honor his own generation’s commitment to racial justice and national liberation, while empowering the masses, who daily suffer the sting of class inequality and yearn for a better life.