On 22nd April, Jacob Zuma will be elected the new president of South Africa. Over the next few weeks I will be reporting on the build-up to Zuma’s triumph. Is it inevitable that he will succeed? Yes. Politically and intellectually he may be a mere shadow of Nelson Mandela, and even of Thabo Mbeki, but the ANC (and South Africa) has fallen on tough times since the idealism of the post-apartheid era, and Zuma is the man of the people for very good reasons.
Not least because most South Africans are mired in dire poverty. The country is moving towards disparities of wealth akin to those in Brazil: a beautiful, affluent first world minority, and squalid poverty for the vast majority. Zuma has promised to lead the latter out of destitution and deprivation.
He can’t. The world is in recession. The South African economy just isn’t growing fast enough by itself, and is in desperate need of international investment. Zuma will have to ‘manage’ the economy just as much as Mbeki did. And while he may claim to a man of the people, in reality Zuma long ago transgressed the hardships endure by the majority of his countrymen, and no amount of his Zulu soundbites can disguise that fact.
This is a man who was illiterate until his teenage years. A man who served ten years in prison for his role in the liberation struggle without even knowing how to fire a gun. Who was in fact taught how to use a gun by Thabo Mbeki during their time in exile in Swaziland afterwards, but now sings ‘Bring me my machinegun’ on the campaign trail. Zuma is the great pretender as much as the great populist, as much as the next president.
Yet despite the inevitability of the outcome of the elections, Zuma is campaigning hard, focusing assiduously on white Afrikaners. Suddenly the apostles of apartheid are the ‘true’ white Africans and the English-speaking followers of Helen Zille, leader of the Cape Town-based Democratic Alliance and Zuma’s main electoral opponent, are recent foreign arrivals whose place in Africa is only on the edge of the great oceans.
After Zuma, Zille is the most colourful character in this campaign. A white, fluent Xhosa speaker, fond of singing racy songs in that language, she is spearheading the legal campaign against the National Prosecutor’s decision to drop corruption charges brought against Zuma on the basis they were politically motivated. She is expected to become Premier of the Cape Province.
And that’s something the British press overlooks. There are many small parties fighting for regional issues as much as national ones. The Inkhata Freedom Party fights for the Zulu heartland, but will lose ground to the ANC because Zuma is himself Zulu. But Inkhata has the best posters: a family of elephants marching towards… well, no-one knows where, but they’re marching forwards at least, led by the young. A breakaway group from the ANC, the COPE party, has the best slogan: Have Hope. Vote. Cope.
Still, hope doesn’t stretch far in comparison to the 2bn rand spent by the ANC on its campaign. COPE’s, in contrast, has been poorly organised and left too much to the last minute. Instead its long term prospects lie in the hope that Zuma will inevitably disappoint his supporters, given the great debts he owes to the many machiavels who helped him overthrow Mbeki.
These elections are full of contradictions. I hope to describe them in the days to come. They do not bear comparison to the Zimbabwean elections of last year. The Zimbabweans knew what the vote meant and how it could be stolen. Here, it won’t be stolen, but a generation has grown up that does not know how vicious the struggle for the vote was. And here, in many ways, it won’t make any difference.
The immediate future is the ANC’s, yet the ANC’s entire front bench does not understand the future of the world outside South Africa. It hasn’t grasped the need to sustain expansion in electrical energy and electronic communication, and was very late in understanding HIV. It is a leadership rooted in the time of exile prior to the fall of apartheid. The young elephants show no signs of overcoming their apathy just yet, and it will be the next election at least before they, if not overthrow the ANC, overthrow the old generation that cannot find a better candidate than Jacob Zuma.