For all the talk of crime, jobs or AIDS, South Africa’s parliamentary vote Wednesday is all about Jacob Zuma, who has survived corruption and sex scandals to emerge as one of the country’s most popular leaders ever.
The main opposition summed up its campaign in the waning days with a two-word slogan: “Stop Zuma!” Nothing, though, appears to stand in the way of his becoming South Africa’s next president.
The governing African National Congress is expected to sweep the vote, as it did in the first post-apartheid election in 1994 and the two others since. Parliament elects South Africa’s president, and an ANC-controlled assembly is expected to anoint Zuma in May.
The opposition tried to paint Zuma as corrupt, antidemocratic and intent on plotting with communists to destroy the hard-won economic gains since apartheid ended in 1994. Retired Cape Town Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-apartheid campaign and has dedicated himself since to building democracy in South Africa, has questioned whether Zuma is fit to govern.
But the ANC sees Zuma, 67, as its first leader since Nelson Mandela able to connect with voters. Ordinary South Africans see parallels between Zuma’s rise from childhood poverty to political prominence and their own struggles and aspirations.
The more Zuma is criticized, the more fiercely his party has defended him. The ANC Youth League dismissed the revered Tutu’s comments as “rantings.”
The ANC brought out its own moral authority the weekend before the vote. Mandela, at 90 frail and largely retired from public life, appeared alongside Zuma at a rally that drew more than 100,000 people to central Johannesburg, and was seen by hundreds of thousands more on state TV and on screens set up at other ANC rallies around the country.
Mandela said nothing at the weekend rally. He didn’t have to. The image of Mandela alongside Zuma — wearing a yellow T-shirt emblazoned with the candidate’s face — will be enough to stir the millions of poor, black South Africans who embrace the ANC as the party that defeated apartheid.
Zuma rejects the proposition he dominates South African politics. If he is popular, he said in a February interview with The Associated Press, it is because the ANC is popular.
It’s “because I’m a leader of the ANC. Not because I’m Jacob Zuma,” he said.
Questioned on policy, Zuma says decisions are made by the collective leadership, indicating that there won’t be major domestic or foreign policy shifts from his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, who was ousted following a fierce power struggle.
Even before Zuma took over, the ANC-led government had rolled out AIDS drugs and responded to criticism of Mbeki’s refusal to believe AIDS was caused by a virus.
On foreign policy, Mbeki had carved out a leading role for South Africa as the continent’s peacemaker. Mbeki had been accused taking too soft a line on Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. But now that Mbeki’s efforts have yielded a power-sharing government in Zimbabwe, the pressure will be off Zuma.
Speaking to reporters on the eve of the vote, Zuma said South Africa would continue to work for peace and stability on the continent, particularly in areas emerging from conflict. As deputy president earlier this decade, Zuma had mediated among factions in civil-war ravaged Burundi.
“Our (foreign) policy is clear,” he said Tuesday. “We have said it is not going to change.”
Trevor Manuel, Mbeki’s respected finance minister, has campaigned vigorously for Zuma.
“The one thing I know, and I have worked with Jacob Zuma for almost two decades, the one thing I know is that he will draw on highly skilled individuals,” Manuel told reporters on the eve of the vote. “He wants to succeed. He is not going to set himself up for failure.”
Until weeks before the vote, the ANC said it was prepared to have a president divide his time between governing and standing trial. Then after years of legal wrangling, prosecutors announced in early April that they were dropping corruption charges against Zuma, saying the case had been manipulated for political reasons and the criminal charges would never be revived.
But the taint of corruption was not erased. Prosecutors said that while they were forced to back off on procedural grounds, they still believed they had a strong case linking Zuma to a bribery scandal involving a French arms company. The investigation revolved around a 1999 deal for South Africa to buy ships, submarines, helicopters, jets and other weaponry from European and South African firms.
The corruption case isn’t the only legal entanglement to haunt Zuma. In 2006, Zuma was acquitted of raping an HIV-positive family friend. But even today, Zuma is ridiculed for his testimony during the trial that he believed showering after what he described as a consensual encounter protected him from AIDS.
Zuma’s legal problems would have ended the career of a lesser politician but he has drawn adoring crowds throughout the campaign. Affable and relaxed on the podium, he’s quick to break into a warm smile, a song, a dance. For South Africans, it is a startling and welcome contrast to his cool, pipe-smoking, Shakespeare-quoting predecessor.
ANC members elected Zuma as party president over Mbeki in late 2007. Months later, Mbeki bowed to an order from the ANC to step down early as head of state, losing a final round to Zuma. Kgalema Motlanthe was installed as a largely placeholder president until this year’s vote.
Mbeki supporters broke away to form their own party late last year, which was at first seen as a strong challenge to the ANC. But COPE has had little time to prepare and has been beset by internal power struggles. The established opposition parties, meanwhile, are limited by regional, tribal or narrow-issue bases, or led by whites who profess liberal values but can’t shake a reputation for condescending toward blacks.
Mbeki oversaw strong economic growth for South Africa. But the party’s left wing — Zuma’s base — accused Mbeki of moving too slowly to pass the benefits on to the black majority. However, Mbeki had begun to spend more to help the poor and now Zuma is poised to take the credit.
The ANC launched its campaign for Wednesday’s vote with promises of heavy public spending to create jobs and improve education and health. But in the AP interview earlier this year, Zuma cautioned that the world’s financial crisis will make those goals hard to reach.
With Western economies slowing, demand for South African exports has declined and production has dropped, causing some layoffs and fears of more. At the end of the campaign, Zuma was talking not about creating jobs, but staving off job losses.
“We have made commitments,” Zuma said at his Tuesday news conference in Johannesburg. “We have also proceeded to say this must be looked at relative to what is happening with the credit crunch.
“We will try our best.”
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.