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 Izwi.com, 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.