Simon Barber
Simon Barber

Polokwane viewed from Washington

What does Jacob Zuma’s election as president of the ANC do for South Africa’s overall image in the United States? At first blush the answer has to be: “Not a lot.” The things he said at his rape trial, the machine-gun song and the possibility of him still being tried for corruption all figured prominently in Wednesday morning’s US media coverage. But there was also this in the Wall Street Journal, both the US and European editions, by the European edition’s editor, Matthew Kaminski:

South Africa has mocked prophets of doom before, and could again. In spite of many shortcomings — rising crime and corruption, the Aids epidemic, persistent poverty and poor schools — it boasts what few other African countries can. Safeguards against shoddy leadership include a new, widely respected Constitution, independent courts and other strong institutions, a vocal if small opposition to the powerful ANC, and the habit of free and fair elections. Perhaps more important, a decade plus of political and economic freedom has given birth to new constituencies with a vested interest in continued stability and fast economic growth.

The New York Times‘s Michael Wines in his report used quotes from Xolela Mangcu and Steven Friedman to remind readers that the persona a candidate adopts on the stump, when trying to build a winning coalition, is not always predictive of how the candidate will act when elected. Zuma projected a certain image to achieve his political resurrection. The image told an incomplete story.

Friedman quote: “The guy is personally problematic, and he has a lot of questions to answer. But this is a mainstream figure who was a bosom buddy and close confidante of Thabo Mbeki. He’s not some wild man coming in from the hills to destroy the palace.”

Mangcu quote: “There is nothing about [Zuma’s] public actions that suggests he is a populist, that he would return power to the poor.”

Mark Gevisser had a reassuring piece on the New York Times op-ed page on December 12. He told Times readers that, whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the characters involved, the present upheaval was essentially healthy.

Money quote:

One of the best possible legacies of the current political turmoil would be the collapse of the de facto one-party state — and its replacement by a real choice for South African voters. Already the split in the ANC has opened up space for robust criticism of hitherto untouchable South African leaders … Gone, too, is that beguiling myth of the Mandela era: that the ANC is a cathedral of morality. The truth is that it is a rowdy hall of competing interests, driven by patronage and riven by personality, grubby with politics. It is no longer a liberation movement but the ruling party of a young and healthy — messy and unpredictable — democracy.

So the basic message coming across in the two of the most influential publications in the US is that the sky is not falling in South Africa. The raucousness of the leadership race and the ANC conference is a sign of health. The winner, out of tune with the times though he may be on sexual hygiene and mores, may not be as frightening as his detractors aver. If he is, South Africa and its institutions are now robust enough to cope with “shoddy” leadership.

That is not to say the new ANC president has an easy row to hoe in rehabilitating himself from his rape-trial testimony, reference to which dominated the comments posted on Gevisser’s column in the NY Times. And even if the National Prosecuting Authority lets him be or he survives another trial, he will still need to deal with the concerns raised by one commenter, Truculentus, about the probity of some of his associates.

But these tasks are surely not impossible, least of all for someone with Zuma’s evident political skill set. They will need to be undertaken, should he become president, to preserve South Africa’s international standing.

The Jacob Zuma I saw and heard in Los Angeles earlier this month certainly seems to have what it takes to ingratiate himself across a wide spectrum in the US. As you can hear for yourself at, he communicates well — simply, clearly and with empathy for his listeners. He is comfortable in front of almost any audience. He radiates authenticity. He has no trouble talking about his religious faith and the importance of good values as the basis of development. Don’t snigger. That counts for much over here, not just on the religious right (and always keep in mind La Rochefoucauld’s observation that hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue). His social conservatism resonates among many who have not traditionally been friends of the ANC. Resonant too is his personal narrative as the self-educated poor boy who overcame great odds to make it to the top.

That he cares about the good opinion of the North — and sees it as an essential prerequisite for progress at home — he made evident via his pre-Polokwane swing though London, Texas and California. He could go a long way to clinching that good opinion with a strong speech or two on Aids (including contrition for his remarks in court), corruption and crime, and some (more) harsh language on Mugabe to help counter the meme that South Africa is headed the same way. Words alone won’t do the trick, of course. However, the right ones could be very helpful right now.

  • http://Webmail Misha & Mvulane

    Zuma is a disgrace to this country. Never mind what the Americans think, what about our anxieties.
    The biggest questions on are minds are;
    Is the Law going to be lenient on rapists when JZ becomes Prez?
    And what about corruption?
    For the first time in our lives we agree with the DA (hELEN Zille) that we are headed for doom in this country.

  • Pingback: Zuma whitewash of ANC - Page 2 - The Prophecy Forums()

  • Pingback: » Blogger covers another side of ANC Polokwane conference()

  • Bheka Mkhize

    Thanks Simon Barber for the well balanced article. As much as you present challenges that South Africa might face under JZuma leadership but you don’t ‘forget’ to present the fact that JZuma has good leadership qualities that can advance this country. That’s what I would call fair argument.

  • hlakile

    My question is whether a leopard can change his spots? Here is a man that has been implicated in an international fraud debacle. Here is a man that was charged with raping a woman in his own household. Here is a man that sings about grabbing his machine gun. His defense is that he will step down when forced to do so. If he was not guilty, would his defense not simply be that he is not guilty? Surely if someone accuses you of a crime you did not commit, your plea would not be to let the judge decide, but indeed guilty or not guilty!

    We may not be heading for a disaster in this country, yet, but I am not comfortable with a fraudulent, uneducated rapist as the head of my country. Bill Clinton was axed for one indiscretion. Zuma is getting away with so much more. And the people just keep cheering!

  • Zac

    In all fairness, I strongly believe that every politician has ghosts in their closets. As such it is unfair to crucify Zuma because his ghosts although not proven were exposed by those screaming for his blood. That in itself (the fact that his ghosts were exposed suspiciosly) casts a shadow of doubt over those other politicians, more so when they terminate Pikoli because he wants to expose the ghosts in their friend’s closet. At least with Zuma we know what he may have done and he will go all out to prove otherwise.

  • esvl

    “Here is a man that sings about grabbing his machine gun”

    That is kind of scary. Rwanda here we come?

  • Nhlanhla

    His character holds more weight than his reputation. Character is what you know you are, reputation is what others think of you. When you pass away, your character is all that you take with you, reputation stays behind. We can all ride or drag each others reputations in the world.

    A character may go through a lot, the more it goes through, the stronger it gets. For a character, each time it wins, it gets reborn, each time it loses, a part of it dies. What dies may be a good thing for the character too. A loss, to a repuation is always demaging.

    A reputation may change, it is driven by the character, but sometimes it is infringed upon by other peoples opinions. It doesn’t matter much to the character, becuase it lives on beyond the tribulations.

    What are the values of Jacob Zumas character? I’d say he’s a bit too honest for a politician, hence his reputation has been damaged. What about his character? Let us look where his character comes from, and look at where it is, then maybe we can see where it is going. It is still in a struggle to free people from poverty, it is still striving to have people get an education, besides the fact that he didn’t get any formal education.

    A leader. Other characters recognise a leader. Some are happy to be lead by a strong character. Some shallow characters cling to reputation, they’re not comfortable with a bad reputation. It is a misfortune to them when they come across a character while his reputation is tilted to the bad side.

    A strong character recognises this an he is touched. So, in order to help them see through the veil, he hangs around and walks and talks with them. This is leadership.

  • Bee

    #1…what do we care what washington thinks?the states might be the richest country in the world…but it only has as much influence as we give them.#2..the states encourages 18 yera olds to go to the middle east and KILL for their country,why do wewant to be associated with that?because they will drag us down with them at the end.

    on Zuma,I am not a hardened fan,but what is teh alternative?are we saying that politicians are righteous and better than everyone?we need to show as a country that we foster the spirit of forgiveness.and id also like to point out that the presidentis mearly the figure head and all the poeple who run the country are still the same,behind Mbeki or Zuma.

  • Moosa Gani

    My opinion is that to understand or even relatively forecast the future, we must first identify the expectations of the people of SA. On the face of it, you could break it up into 2 camps. The poor and the rest of us.

    As far as the rest of us are concerned our expectation is that of a well functioning, effecient, crime combating, whistle blowing and anti-corrupt government.

    The expectation of the poor is that of social upliftment, food in the mouths of their children, running water, electricity, education, jobs and opportunities.

    In theory its simple? But how do you measure something like this? Fortunately the truth lies in the facts! And the facts are that SA still has a huge wealth gap, poverty amongst the majority and an extraordinary amount of violent crime. Another important fact to remember is that the ANC is in power. Irrespective of who its leaders are, the ANC is responsible for the peoples expectations.

    Now we look at someone like Mbeki. He brought us this far, and now the people are angry with him on both sides of the camp. Whether your reason be crime or lack of service delivery, its one in the same. In turn a new leader was born in the image of his people, Jacob Zuma.

    Now lets look at the 2. Mbeki grew up outside of SA. Educated outside of SA. Has a squeeky clean record, almost as if he was a saint. Can barely relate to the rest of us. We all are merely pieces on a chess board to him high up in his Ivory Tower. Zuma on the other hand is real. There’s no confusion as to where he comes from, what he has done (be it good or bad) and most of all how much the people love him. The question is who is the right person for the job? If this was a board game or a computer program, rationally and logically speaking Zuma would not even feature on the list. His got 1 to many potholes on the road behind him.

    The success of the future lies in the facts. Zuma may not be the most educated person in this country, but even he knows he will have a tough time to help steer this country to properity. Inevitably it will go one of 2 ways.

    One thing to remember is that the current Mbeki government is a lip service government. Whether that is due to the incompetence amongst its ranks, sheer lazyness or corruption, we all know what has been said and what has been done or should I say not done?

    Possible Scenarios:

    1) Zuma becomes an action man. Tackles the issues that face us by action. By implementing policy rather then creating policy. He communicates with the people. He brings about accountability amongst government officials, etc…..

    2) [Insert your version of DOOMS DAY here]. The educated and skilled labour of this country will either be wiped out by crime or leave because of it. As long as the skills shortage INCREASES, at some point the countries infrastructure is bound to cave in (As it is already doing) and the Beautiful SA we know will cease to exist.

    Thats the short version of it. The long version is what I refer to as the “Vested Interest”. What I mean is the vested interest of corporations, individuals local or international and maybe even countries as a whole. The key factor to success here is the management of the poverty, health and ecuation crisis. There’s no easy solution and it wont happen overnight. Its a mixture of juggling wealth redistribution with parralel education while instilling values in those who have none all the while maintaining security for all. Its not easy task at all for any man, government, nation, relegion, culture or race. You might as well try hopping on one leg from JHB to CPT. Same amount of effort required.

    We live in a very rich country. High gaps of wealth between the middle/working class and the poor. International corporations have a vested interest in SA. We talking Mines, corporations, Telecoms, Finance, Banks, etc!! There is a lot of money up for grabs. The US plays world police. They are persucutor, prosecutor, player and referee. They have the power the Alienate us or make us prosper?

    So you ask yourself!!
    Why does Washington think the following:

    Thats for you to decide. Everyone from Political experts to formther presidents, local and international authors has a theory on how good or bad this is for the country. At the end of the day we live here. We know what challenges face us and the country as a whole. We may all not agree on whats the right way forward but I hope we all try our best. Dont believe everything you read, make your own mind up!

  • Jacques

    Simon, Thanx for this illuminating view on the JZ saga. As a proud South African living and working in Kenya I have found it difficult to help my friends in East Africa understand the dynamic and complexity of what is post Mandela South Africa. Your balanced points helps to complete the picture.
    Jacques Carstens.

  • Sunnyboy

    ANC is a self-revitalising organisation.What a sterling Political career Pres Mbeki is having!Look at his posture at Conference!!He is the total summary of past ANC leaders.He accepted the verdict.This display is rubbing off on future ANC leadership now being groomed.Mbeki put on a Jacket,which in our belief displays respect for both the attendees and the occasion!!He ranks next to the Elders as a Statesman to guide this Organisation in to the Future! Viva Mbeki Viva ANC.What a Country! Viva Mshini!We support you!The World marvells at you!!!Mafavuke okwe dangabane!!Hlabangani!!

  • Amy

    I agree, it’s a very balanced view.

    “He could go a long way to clinching that good opinion with a strong speech or two on Aids (including contrition for his remarks in court)” – I personally can’t wait for this day – I am hopeful that the very public display of JZ’s ignorance about HIV transmission made him hungry to correct himself. Maybe this will translate into some action on an issue that should have been top priority from the start.

  • Ivo Vegter

    I’m not sure I share your optimism, but you make (or quote) a few excellent points — in particular about his desire to be well-received abroad, and the distinction between the face a candidate shows to his election base and the face he wears once in public office. Let’s say I don’t share your optimism, but I do share the hope.

  • bobo

    the ex pats who are relaying their views from washington know nothing about what is happening on the ground they are making their views from their ivory towers in america and are not exposed to the harsh realities of south african life first hand. the people have spoken so must their will be done. down with american embeeded sellouts like them they must not come back cause we’re carving our own futures not with some american big brother watching

  • Hamba Kahle

    From the dawn of time, there is only one honest, elegantly simple way to sort the wheat from the chaff: LOOK AT THE FRUITS THE MAN IS BEARING.

    The rest is easy to predict.

  • Ivo Vegter

    The view that we shouldn’t care what Americans think is shortsighted. No matter whether it’s motivated by anti-colonialism, resentment over America’s stance towards the Apartheid government, modern anti-Americanism, or simple xenophobia, and no matter whether such a motivation is justifiable, what other countries think matters. It shouldn’t dictate our course, but it matters in the same way one company cares what others think of it; it’s marketing. What trading partners think is important for South Africa’s future prosperity, no matter how isolationist you’d prefer to be.

  • frank

    @moosa gani

    you missed one point moosa . We live in a resource rich country , but have to keep making little profit from it because we are too lazy to process it and work it ourselves . This country’s greatest wealth is its human resource which will become its biggest burden if it is not developed . We may even be too late , as we are encouraging and protecting incompetence and not educating properly . The vast majority of the money here will move from white owned corporation to black owned corporations , and nothing will change , in fact the poor will get poorer , you can see it happening already .