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World puzzled by support for Zuma

While South Africans anxiously await the beginning of Polokwane to see who will come out tops — Mbeki or Zuma — the rest of the world equally holds its breath. Especially the African continent is concerned about the outcome of the presidential battle. African countries know too well that their own political (and economical) fate is intrinsically linked to that of big brother South Africa. As the saying goes: if South Africa sneezes, the rest of the continent will catch a cold.

So I thought it a good idea to look around the African and international media landscape to see what commentators outside South Africa have to say about our good old JZ. What I found is this: most are simply stunned by Zuma’s political recovery, and flabbergasted that someone as scandal-ridden as Zuma could be taken seriously as a presidential candidate in this globally celebrated African democracy.

An Africa-based Reuters reporter, whose comment was printed in one of Kenya’s Nation papers, was mystified how Zuma had been able to “shrug off obstacles that would have crippled others”, referring to JZ’s corruption allegations, his rape trial and the fact that he has little formal education.

This sentiment was echoed by Daily Nation commentator Gitau Warigi, who found it
“odd that someone who had been facing a messy corruption charge that had been given wide international publicity could still be enjoying this kind of popularity in his country”. He added that “African countries that are used to incumbents getting their way are puzzled that Mr Mbeki could be in this kind of trouble”.

Charles Onyango-Obbo of the East African predicted that South Africa is about to ridicule itself internationally and lose its political credibility. He feared the ANC “is close to serving up one of the continent’s biggest political embarrassments by electing former vice-president Jacob Zuma as its leader”.

Onyango-Obbo also warned that making Zuma top presidential candidate would negatively affect not only South Africa, and pleaded for other critics to speak out as the situation is “so critical to Africa at large, we cannot say enough about it”.

Along the same lines, Kenyan Human Rights Commission executive director Muthoni Wanyeki noted that she was “horrified” about Zuma’s candidature. She asked: “How could this have happened? To most of us, merely the fact that Zuma had been charged with grand corruption and rape was enough to discredit him.”

In her view, Zuma is “not the kind of person who can sustain, let alone advance, the role that South Africa has sought for itself as a progressive player for change both on the continent as well as with respect to the continent’s place in the broader world”.

Outside the African continent, the world is equally puzzled by South Africa’s presidential race. New York Times commentators raise their eyebrows over Zuma’s résumé, while the UK Guardian calls Zuma an “imposing Zulu populist” and describes him as “uneducated, militant and pugilistic”.

German Der Spiegel commentator Thielo Thielke is convinced Zuma is trying to get to the top by striking fear into the hearts of the people with his inflammatory speeches, Zulu war dances and battle songs. He also predicted South Africa would face severe economical repercussions if Zuma came out on top. According to Thielke, voices on the London Stock Exchange are already cautioning not to invest in South Africa any more.

Looking at the world’s most respected newspapers, I could find only few, lone voices in defence of Zuma, like that of Kintu Nnyago of Uganda’s Sunday Monitor who sees Zuma as “the come-back-kid of the century”. To Nnyago, JZ is a “man of enormous ability” who would “further integration in South Africa. For he would be the first non-Xhosa in 50 years, since chief Albert Luthuli, to lead the ANC”.

The above is in no way a comprehensive review of the international newspaper landscape. It is rather anecdotal evidence, but I think it nonetheless illustrates quite well the general feeling about Zuma leading the ANC and eventually the country. No matter how we here in South Africa feel about JZ, we don’t live in isolation. How the rest of the world views South Africa and its leadership will have a lasting impact on our political and economical well-being.