The Jacob Zuma Era

Coming on June 1 is Northwestern University journalist professor Doug Foster’s new book, After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Postapartheid South Africa. The book is published by WW Norton in New York City. The title is unoriginal (Financial Times’s Alec Russell had the same title) but should not take away from what I think will be an excellent first take on Jacob Zuma’s presidency. Norton is marketing it as “the most important historical and journalistic portrait to date of a teetering nation whose destiny will determine the fate of a continent.” They promise that Doug has had “early, unprecedented access” to President Zuma as well as to “the next generation in the Mandela family.” The book is based on six years worth of interviews. I am looking forward to reading it. Here to remind you of Doug’s style are excerpts from a 2009 profile of Jacob Zuma in The Atlantic Monthly.

Zuma is a large-boned man with a shaved, bullet-shaped head. He carries himself in the loose-limbed manner of a natural politician, and the edges of his mouth regularly turn up in a Mona Lisa smile, as if he’s just remembered an old joke. His cheeks are full and his skin unlined; he looks far younger than his 67 years. Tinted wire-rimmed glasses shade his heavy-lidded eyes, so it’s hard to know when he’s pulling your leg, or getting angry at the drift of your questions. He’s famously even-keeled—or chill, as his children say; they’ve never seen him lose his temper.

Zuma’s home in Johannesburg lies in the middle of the block on a dead-end street in a comfortable suburb of the city. It’s a two-story house, like others on the street, surrounded by high security walls. The walls are topped with electric sensors to warn of intruders. Inside them, highly trained agents keep watch from the driveway and the garden. Zuma’s closest supporters, justifiably or not, fear his assassination. His food is prepared only by people he has reason to trust.

 On the day I first visited [his house], two of his children—a 14-year-old son by his second wife, who committed suicide in 2000, and a 17-year-old daughter by his third wife, from whom he is now divorced—were doing homework at the long table. They seemed rather blasé about the recent dramatic developments in their father’s life. “It’s only politics,” his daughter told me, echoing a refrain she hears regularly from him.

[At Zuma’s home in Nkandla in rural Kwazulu Natal province we] sat in plastic chairs on the porch, looking out over the valley shrouded in mist. While he was talking, a young daughter—one of about 20 children Zuma has fathered with an assortment of wives and mistresses—was brought over to sit on his lap by one of his junior wives; the mother and daughter both live in a rondavel downhill from the main house, which is presided over by Zuma’s first wife, Sizakele Khumalo, a formidable, sharp-tongued woman in her 60s whom Zuma courted when they were teenagers. Polygamy is accepted in Zulu culture and legal in the new South Africa, and Zuma makes no apologies for his full love life. Still, when I asked about his relationship with Khumalo, his eyes welled up. “Do you see this woman? This is my wife—my first wife,” he said. “People look at me, how much I sacrificed. They don’t look at her. She represents women who sacrificed but who are not known. They are in the quiet.”

He sketched the “emotional tale” of their separations—she’d waited for him for the 10 years he spent in prison, and then for 14 more years while he was in exile. She’d suffered a miscarriage shortly after he fled the country, he said, adding: “My heart was bleeding then.” When the police came to harass her during the years of Zuma’s absence, they brought along dogs to threaten her. Yet in all those years they were apart, she never considered breaking up. “My heart wouldn’t allow me to be negative,” Khumalo told me. “I just focused on the fact that he was coming back someday.”

These days, being at his ranch with Khumalo, his brothers and cousins, his children, and other family members helps Zuma “reconnect,” he said. He offered his daughter a slice of grilled beef, pulling it away when she lunged for it until she remembered to hold out both hands politely. “If I can’t identify with this area where I come from, and begin to be too high-flying … I’m like a South African who’s floating in the air.”

…  [I]t struck me that periodic recklessness, reined in by the collective leadership of the ANC, has traced the narrative of Zuma’s life.

… A cell mate [of Zuma on Robben Island], Ebrahim Ebrahim … described Zuma during his prison years as a world-class listener with a canny understanding of human behavior—and a good leader, because he knew how to assuage hard feelings arising from political arguments.

A few months before [the 2009 presidential elections], the ANC had convened a series of focus groups of likely voters. Party strategists had listened as anger poured forth, directed toward both the ANC and the government, for the failure to turn lofty plans—for a better education system, the fight against crime, and economic uplift—into reality. “It was scary,” said one of the listeners. But the ANC’s historic role still bound most participants to the party; few planned to vote against it. Regarding Zuma, a racial split was clear: “White people think he’s guilty” of the corruption charges that have dogged him over the years, one of those who observed the focus groups said. “Blacks don’t think so.”

Read the full article.


4 thoughts on “The Jacob Zuma Era

  1. It’s possible that the book might provide some insight into Zuma’s first term as president, but judging from the title and the blurbs from Norton, it doesn’t sound likely. The whole idea that somehow Mandela’s death will have a significant impact on South Africa, that the country is “teetering,” and that South Africa’s “destiny will determine the fate of a continent” is such tendentious, cliched, and risible nonsense which despite the lack of any evidence continues to be bandied about.

    Also, what on earth does “the second generation in the Mandela family” have to do with current politcs in South Africa? Other than for the hapless Mandla Mandela, Madiba’s grandson, a marginal player, the Mandela family is not involved in politics in any meaningful fashion. Why is it notable that the author of the book had “early, and unprecedented access” to Mandela’s grandchildren?

    I’m not particularly hopeful that this will be anything more than a rehashing and repackaging of cliched and repeatedly disproven memes.

  2. Perhaps Jacob Zuma has successfully painted a ‘normal’ life for himself for Norton. Why do I doubt a man who has a track record of rape and political disobedience, who holds an atrocious attitude to women, who advocates a ‘shower remedy’ for HIV and who has banned all negative press about him?
    When we are children we are told to “never trust anyone you don’t know”. We don’t know Zuma, South Africa doesn’t know Zuma, because he has made himself scarce in the press but also because he is so inconsistent about his beliefs and philosophies.
    Who is Jacob Zuma really?

  3. Thanks to Sean Jacobs for mentioning this project, which I’ve labored over for the past four years. My hope is that the depth of reporting, especially among young people, will win over astute readers like ekapa, and that the fresh angle on JZ’s staying power and weaknesses will offer something new to agenerationlost, who after all deserves a more satisfying sense of who the leader is and why he behaves as he does. Like any writer on the verge of publishing a big project, there’s a level of anxiety and a wish that the book was already OUT THERE. It will be terrific finally to engage with readers, both those who find value in the work and those who criticize it based on the work, not the
    marketing materials. Douglas Foster

    • @Douglas Foster:

      I would be delighted to be won over. I would very much welcome a book that deals with South Africa in an even handed analytical manner. Too much of what’s out there is based on a template made up of a set of cliches that have no basis on the reality of South Africa. To be clear, my initial response is based on the marketing materials from Norton which make the book sound like one of those wrong headed South Africa-on-the-brink-of-disaster porn texts.

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