The former Zulu herd boy appalls the middle classes, but embodies the African dream. Will the man poised to be president heal the rifts?
As young Zulu boys, Maphamule Ndlovu and Jacob Zuma had much in common. They would herd cattle, kill snakes and learn the warrior code by stick fighting. They would listen to stories of their ancestors around the village fire in the pretty but impoverished hills of 1950s KwaZulu-Natal.
But the lives of the two men, now both 67, could not have turned out more differently. Ndlovu lives alone in a ramshackle building with a leaking roof and no water or electricity, on a diet of bread, tea and porridge.
Zuma is poised to become South Africa‘s first Zulu president after elections on Wednesday. “He was the person who was good-looking and spoke well,” recalls his former friend. “He was very determined to be educated.”
In a story that rivals anything the American dream has to offer, the Zulu herd boy from one of the country’s poorest provinces is about to become the most powerful man in Africa. He has done it after serving his time in the liberation struggle and on Robben island. He has proved a resilient political fighter who, floored by fraud and corruption claims and a charge of rape, kept picking himself up off the canvas to finally outmanoeuvre his rivals.
Unlike the scholarly and aloof Thabo Mbeki, who habitually quoted Shakespeare or phrases in Latin, Zuma can dance. He is charming and charismatic and comfortable in his own skin.
He can walk with royalty – Prince Charles is said to have described him as “one of his best friends” – without losing the common touch.
His ability to connect with poor people, black and white, and articulate their concerns about crime and jobs has been compared to that of politicians in the southern states of America. “In a certain kind of way Zuma will be our first African president,” said his biographer, Jeremy Gordin. “Nelson Mandela transcended everything and was a world figure. Thabo Mbeki spent a lot of time in England wearing pinstripe suits and smoking a pipe. Zuma is a real African.”
However, Zuma has earned plenty of critics – including Archbishop Desmond Tutu – and enemies during his ascent.
Many believe that the recent collapse of legal action against him was a disaster for South Africa’s courts. They accuse Zuma of being a political chameleon who tells audiences what they want to hear, reassuring business, courting trade unions and communists, appealing to populist sentiments for the death penalty and against gay marriage. They worry about who will ultimately control him once he is in power. Zuma’s Zulu origins can be found amid the undulating hills, valleys and forests, deep ridges and steep gorges of KwaZulu-Natal. It was here that Zuma, the son of a domestic worker and rural policeman, gained the thin scars visible on his face today in a clan initiation.
A razor is used to make incisions in the cheeks of a child between their first and second birthday, then a herbal mixture is applied to heal it. But the clan believes that if the sky is overcast, the scars will continue to weep.
Education was scarce for Zulu boys growing up in the early apartheid years. But Zuma’s brothers challenge the myth that he received no education, and only learned to read and write while a prisoner on Robben island. “For most of us, school was about being able to write letters to girlfriends, but Jacob was different,” Michael Zuma told the Guardian through a Zulu translator. “He insisted we should get further knowledge so, after we brought in the cows each day, we attended a kind of night school. He instigated it for everyone.”
Joseph added: “People say he didn’t learn because they can’t find evidence of which school he went to, but that’s because we had classes on the homestead. Jacob was a very intelligent boy with a very incisive mind.
“When we were sitting around doing nothing, Jacob was always the one who would pose us questions.
“At times of poverty, for example, he would ask if there was a room full of food and a room full of money, which would you rather have? He was always asking deep questions.”
The brothers believe that Zuma’s childhood experiences shaped the man he is today. Michael added: “Jacob still very much believes in Zulu culture. We don’t want him to forget it because those are his roots. It’s unfortunate if white people disagree, as he is only pursuing his own culture. Taking many wives is acceptable to Zulus as long as you have means to support them. White people have their own culture.”
There is general uncertainty about the number of Zuma’s wives, though he reportedly has 22 children by six women. While he was acquitted of rape, his remark that he took a shower after having sex with an HIV-positive woman to minimise the risk of infection caused fury. So too his statement that “in Zulu culture you cannot leave a woman if she is ready. To deny her sex, that would have been tantamount to rape.”
None of this plays well with the middle class in urban centres such as Cape Town, especially among educated women. Some are appalled that, when the eyes of the world turn on South Africa for next year’s World Cup, they will find a country led by an “African big man” with several first ladies.
The Zulu factor is also painful to those who admired the ANC for keeping tribalism out of politics for so long, even if the outgoing leadership was dubbed the “Xhosa Nostra”. Mandela and Mbeki were both Xhosas.
“Xhosas have a reputation as great talkers,” said a political analyst, Patrick Laurence. “Zulus have a reputation as great fighters.”
“White folk not familiar with rural Africa don’t like it, and women shirk from his polygamy,” said Allister Sparks, a veteran journalist and political analyst. “But it goes down well with Zulus and poor people around the country. Unlike Mbeki, he can do the tribal dance and connect with them.”
Today many of South Africa’s 7 million Zulus, the biggest ethnic group at around 15% of the population, are assimilated and westernised. In the historic Zulu capital, Ulundi, they visit KFC and Nando and the large shopping centre. But in neighbouring poor townships, many speak only Zulu and believe in a spiritual link with their ancestors.
It was their ancestors’ empire that was unceremoniously smashed by the British army in 1879, just six months after the battle of Rorke’s Drift, depicted in the film Zulu with Michael Caine. This was a humiliating final defeat that, in the words of local battlefield guides, turned once proud warriors into herdboys, labourers and servants.
But 130 years later, a Zulu has power in his grasp. And Zuma, who used to regale his Robben island cellmates with tales of the Anglo-Zulu war, has made sure everyone gets the message. He wears leopard skin and loincloth to dance with his close ally, the current Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini, and his signature song is Umshini Wam (Bring Me My Machine Gun). His supporters sport T-shirts proclaiming “100% Zulu Boy”. The leader of the ANC youth league announced its readiness “to take up arms and kill for Zuma”.
Under Zuma, the ANC is likely to overwshelm its bitter rival in KwaZulu-Natal, the Inkatha Freedom party, led by the veteran Zulu prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi. More than 23,000 police and soldiers have been deployed in the province in case of more violence this time. Posters for both parties are dotted on lampposts and telegraph poles around Nkandla. The beauty of the landscape here belies the brutal statistics which show unemployment at 90% and estimate Aids as infecting at least one in four people.
The poverty is palpable in Ndlovu’s home and life story.
Zuma’s childhood friend tried to make a living despite never becoming literate. He went to work in Johannesburg, but was the victim of a shooting. He rolls up his shirt to reveal the scars of stitches on his stomach.
He returned to Nkandla and married, fathering two sons, but his wife left him and later died. Asked how he earns money to feed himself, he said: “I throw my hands in the air. I just live from day to day. I try to hold on to that.”
Would he swap places with his childhood friend?
“You can’t be president when you are not educated,” he muses. “I do regret not being educated. When Zuma comes back here as president, he is welcome to bring me some money.”
Source: Smith, D. (2009), “Jacob Zuma the chameleon brings South Africans joy and fear” The Guardian [online]. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/20/zuma-south-africa-politics [Accessed on 29 November 2009]