Saturday, December 5, 2009

Good Luck, Msholozi

Last night, I watched as President Jacob Zuma spoke on behalf of the nation at the draw for the 2010 Soccer World cup. He spoke of South Africa’s swelling national pride and excitement. He spoke of his confidence in our country to host the tournament as well as, if not better than any before.  He spoke of his hopes for South Africa's future. Having seen the preparations and frankly awe inspiring developments underway, I don't doubt that South Africa will make this world cup one to remember. What really caught my attention though was that this was the same Jacob Zuma of yester-year now standing proudly onstage as South Africa’s president - an incredible notion.
I was far away from South Africa in May when Jacob Zuma became president of South Africa. While being geographically removed undoubtedly hindered my immersion in South African politics, I do not think I was uninformed enough not to be surprised.

Jacob Zuma, now sixty-eight years old, has been an active member of the ANC since he was seventeen. He was active in umKhonte We Sizwe (the militant branch of the ANC during the struggle)  and the SACP and served ten years on Robben Island for conspiring to overthrow the goverment. After being released, he rose to the ANC executive committee while working for the struggle in Mozambique and Zambia. He was one of the first ANC activists to return to South Africa when the ANC ban was lifted in 1990.  He rose through government in the new South Africa and was set - as Thabo Mbeki's deputy - to become South Africa's president in 2009.

Around 2004, everything went pear shaped. Zuma was faced corruption charges along with Tony Yengeni for being involved in a shady 1999 arms deal. Only Yengeni was convicted. Zuma was then dragged into the corruption charges levelled against his financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, again for corruption, again for crooked arms deals and also for racketeering. During this trial, Thabo Mbeki relieved him of his duties as Deputy. While Shaik was sentenced to 15 years in prison, Zuma escaped, but then resigned from Parliament.

In 2005, between corruption charges - for more did follow - Jacob Zuma was charged with rape. He was later acquitted in court. We must not forget that the victim (?) was HIV positive, and Mr Zuma claimed that he took a shower after the consensual act to prevent transmission. This, of course, is nonsense, and this statement elicited widespread anger and ridicule. During the trial, his political affiliates had a harder time dealing with the charges than with those of corruption, but huge mobs of supporters crowding outside the court during the trials showed that Zuma had not lost his fan base. His supporters became a camp on their own, aggravating an impending schism within the ANC.

Mr. Zuma was then charged again with corruption, this time alone. His legal team worked desperately to delay the courts, but their appeals were eventually denied. In 2007, the Scorpions presented all the evidence collected against him, and he was indicted to appear in the High Court on corruption charges. The charges were declared unlawful on a technicality and once again, he escaped a conviction that would have prevented his accession to the presidency. Evidence, in the form of phone tap recordings, has since come to light proving that Thabo Mbeki was involved in interference, and at least some of the corruption charges and defamation were politically motivated fabrications. In 2008, Mbeki was recalled from the presidency by the ANC after he was found guilty for said misconduct. Mbeki represented the market, while Zuma leaned to the left, and it is believed that Mbeki was working to oust Zuma and strengthen his hold over the ANC.

Zuma recently married his fifth wife, who is now his third current wife, and has at least one engagement in the wings. Most people believe that he has veered away from tradition and towards irresponsibility. The South African Constitution makes no provisions for the title of first lady, and none of Zuma's wives have expressed desires to hold that position. Some ministers, he said, have many mistresses and illegitimate children which they keep hidden behind a facade of monogamy. He says he prefers to be open about his commitment to tradition and claims to love all his wives and his nineteen children. One of his wives, however, committed suicide in 2000 after a marriage that she claimed were '24 years of hell'.

And so, with all of this in mind, I was surprised to hear that the same man was now South Africa's state head. Of course, he has his strengths: he is a man of the people, which makes him a welcome change from the very cerebral and aloof Mbeki. While Mr Mbeki was highly educated, a brilliant statesman, Jacob Zuma had no formal education. This has never stopped him, however, as years involved in politics have given him both political tact and affability with people. With with so many embarrassing skeletons on public display, he seemed to be facing odds that would have crushed the careers and political hopes of any other politician completely. Perhaps it is testament, then, to the popularity and endurance of Jacob Zuma that he was able to rise into office despite this.

In his speech after being elected to the presidency, Zuma promised to uphold Nelson Mandela's visions of South Africa's future, and he has conducted himself surprisingly well since. He has, so far, lived up to his claims of being a leader who listens to and is not above the concerns of his people. He faced a nightmarish first 100 days, having to deal with service delivery strikes, but with his charm and aforementioned political aptitude, he was able to calm the conflicts.  Indeed he received the African President of the year award in 2009, a peer review award that he saw not as gratification, but instead as a reminder that a president’s duty is to his or her people. It is now 2010, the year in which we will host the Soccer World Cup. Our country is abuzz with preparations; the stadiums soar gracefully over our cities, improvements to our already brilliant road systems are nearing completion and the people are waiting impatiently to go patently soccer mad.

For all his flaws, interesting and sometimes disturbing views, and his controversial past, Jacob Zuma is defying all expectations and giving us hope. We have placed our nation's future his hands and so, whether you love him, despise him or are still ambivalent, I feel that we can only say

Good Luck, Mr. President.


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