So who's afraid of president Jacob Zuma now?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 December, 2007, 12:00am

Two years ago, under the headline 'Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid', a South African newspaper warned its readers that Jacob Zuma represented the greatest threat to the country's prosperity and rule of law since the end of apartheid.

In terms almost unanimously adopted by the country's mainstream media when writing about Mr Zuma - at least until his election this week as president of the ruling African National Congress - the Mail & Guardian editorial called him 'a populist rabble-rouser' who, 'because of question marks over his personal integrity' was 'not qualified to be the country's first citizen'.

The previous week in October 2005, a mob of Zuma loyalists outside a court in Durban, where Mr Zuma faced his first set of fraud and corruption charges, which have since been dismissed, provided 'a clear snapshot of what a Jacob Zuma presidency would be like'.

This would be a country whose courts would be intimidated by thugs, its economy run to ruin by trade unions, and government largesse dished out to cronies and family.

With a failing economy leaning heavily on its northern border, such images resonate with foreboding in South Africa and, since Mr Zuma's victory on Tuesday, media there have been speculating, to quote one headline, 'Are we Zimbabwe?'

No, we are not, according to Steven Friedman, who is probably South Africa's most perceptive political commentator, writing, as it happens, in the same newspaper on Thursday. 'In no post-independence African country has a sitting president been peacefully and democratically defeated by his own party,' according to Friedman.

So, is Mr Zuma no Robert Mugabe-in-Waiting either? The new ANC leader's CV offers few, if any, clues.

According to his potted biography on the ANC's website, his links with trade unionism stretch all the way back to childhood, when 'he was heavily influenced by a trade unionist family member'. This unnamed relative supported the family after Mr Zuma's father - whom some reports identify as a policeman - died when Jacob was young.

Through his 'trade unionism' - the ANC does not identify which union he joined - Mr Zuma became politically active in the early 1960s in Durban, the closest big city to his childhood home in rural Natal. He was also an early militant, joining the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), in 1960, two years before the ANC itself was banned. On his way to Botswana with a group of MK recruits, Mr Zuma was arrested at the age of 21 and jailed for 10 years on terrorism charges, serving time on Robben Island, where he met Nelson Mandela.

Mr Zuma 'rose rapidly through the ranks', says the ANC website, becoming a member of the party's national executive committee and its chief representative in Mozambique. There he stayed until South Africa and Mozambique signed the Nkomati Accord, under which president Samora Machel's government agreed not to allow the ANC to operate from its territory.

The treaty was signed in 1984, but Mr Zuma stayed in Mozambique until 1987, 'crossing in and out of South Africa on a number of occasions' until 'considerable pressure' from the government of P.W. Botha forced him to move to Lusaka, in Zambia. The ANC's headquarters in exile was there, and Mr Zuma became the ANC's head of intelligence, serving on its political and military councils.

After his return to South Africa, following the unbanning of the ANC in February 1990, he took part in the transitional negotiations with the apartheid government. After the first democratic elections, in April 1994, he was elected the ANC's national chairman and its leader in his old home province, in what is now KwaZulu-Natal.

Heralding the arrival of the post-Mandela era, he became the ANC's deputy president in 1997 and deputy president in Thabo Mbeki's government in June 1999. As deputy president, he also became South Africa's chairman of the bi-national commission of South Africa and the People's Republic of China, with vice-president Zeng Qinghong serving as his colleague and the mainland's counterpart.

Mr Zuma's corruption issues date to the 1990s, soon after his official return from exile, when he met a businessman called Schabir Shaik, a former engineering student once suspended from Durban's prestigious ML Sultan Technikon for cheating in his exams. One of Mr Shaik's younger brothers, Chippy, was in charge of arms procurement for the South African National Defence Force. Another brother, Mo, served in the ANC 'intelligence structures' headed by Mr Zuma.

At the time he met Schabir Shaik, by his own admission Mr Zuma 'needed financial assistance'. At least in part, this was to support his large family. The size of his family varies according to the publication writing about them, with one mass circulation magazine reporting earlier this year that Mr Zuma has had at least four wives and 18 children. Mr Zuma's allies in the South African media - notably the Independent group owned by Tony O'Reilly - dismissed the report as part of a smear campaign, but the figure has never been disputed.

Mr Zuma's second wife is South Africa's current foreign minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Much as he may have been smeared, smearing has also been part of the Zuma arsenal: after reports first emerged of his link to the long-running arms procurement scandal, his allies in the press planted a claim that his chief prosecutor, Bulelani Ngcuka, head of the National Prosecuting Authority, had been a spy for the apartheid government.

Mr Ngcuka, a barrister who has subsequently returned to the private sector, is the husband of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, whom Mr Mbeki appointed deputy president after sacking Mr Zuma from the post at the time of Schabir Shaik's conviction.

Shaik is serving a 15-year sentence for passing on to Mr Zuma R1.3 million (HK$1 million) in bribes solicited from the French arms manufacturer Thomson-CSF, which supplied equipment for the South African Navy's newly acquired corvettes.

The possible charges against Mr Zuma still being considered by the National Prosecuting Authority include receiving this and other money.