Zuma, South Africa's Next President, Now Must Prove Himself

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Alexander Joe / AFP / Getty

South Africa's ruling party leader Jacob Zuma says he can smell victory in general elections, addressing 2,000 cheering supporters at the African National Congress party headquarters on April 23, 2009.

Jacob Zuma's election as President of South Africa, all but assured as his party took a formidable lead in early results from this week's balloting, completes an extraordinary, triumphant comeback in which he overcame prosecutions for rape and corruption and finally toppled his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. But in many ways, his difficulties are only just beginning. South Africa has the world's largest HIV/AIDS population, 5.3 million or 11% of all South Africans, according to official figures. It has the world's ninth highest murder rate, an average of 38.6 per 100,000 people in 2007-8. On its borders it has Zimbabwe, whose implosion it has undertaken to help reverse, not least because that collapse has added an estimated 500,000 refugees to South Africa's already stressed social system. And in the 15 years since the formal end of apartheid, social inequality and the number of South Africans living in poverty have actually grown — an umployment remains at a stubborn 21%.

Managing AIDS, crime, Zimbabwe and an economy that is not lifting people out of poverty are the weightiest tasks facing South Africa's next president. So is he up to the job? (See photos of South Africa.)

Much is known about Zuma as a personality — he has six wives. His financial adviser was jailed for bribing him, he likes to sing, he grew up herding goats and completed just three years at school, but rose to prominence as an ANC guerrilla and intelligence chief, serving 10 years in prison with Nelson Mandela. Far less is known about Zuma as a political thinker. That appears to be a deliberate choice on the part of a leader who has consistently presented himself as a kind of executive cipher for policy decisions made by the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

To some extent, then, he can be judged by the ANC's track record after 15 years in office. And that record is decidedly mixed. On AIDS, for example, the ANC's position has been nothing short of scandalous. Mbeki disputed the science that HIV caused AIDS and viewed the epidemic that has killed around 2.5 million of his countrymen as a conspiracy by Western drug companies. That attitude, and the consequent cut in treatment, cost 330,000 lives, according to a study last November by the Harvard School of Public Health. Zuma himself has notoriously, displayed even greater ignorance on AIDS, claiming in court that after having sex with a woman who knew to be HIV-positive, he protected himself by having a shower. On the other hand, the appointment of the well-respected AIDS activist Barbara Hogan as Health Minister after Mbeki's departure — a position she is expected to keep under Zuma — might indicate a new seriousness in tackling the crisis. (Read "Treatment for HIV Should Start Earlier.")

On Zimbabwe, Mbeki was also roundly criticized for his closeness to Robert Mugabe by those, like the U.S. and Britain, who would have preferred to see a far harder approach, though it is far from clear how isolating Zimbabwe while leaving its ruler in power — the North Korean solution — would have helped. As with AIDS, there is hope for improvement here, too. Zuma has become increasingly critical of the Zimbabwean regime, and has described Mugabe as a "dictator".

On crime and inequality, the ANC's performance has been spotty at best. Both increased after the end of apartheid. Both have since declined from their peaks in the early years of this decade — but are still some of the highest in the world. Zuma agrees more needs to be done, but so do many in the ANC; the key question is delivery. Indeed, that's the crux of the task before the new leadership over a range of issues, because all of South Africa's domestic challenges can be addressed and even overcome by better service delivery. Better housing, better education, better health, better water and electricity supply, better job creation — all help cut HIV infections, increase AIDS treatment, alleviate poverty and inequality, and cut crime. And the ANC has connected millions of South Africans to water, electricity, sewage and refuse removal. It has also built around 3 million new homes. But anyone who has seen the miles and miles of tin roofed, clapboard townships on the Cape Flats, outside Cape Town, or in Alexandra, outside Johannesburg, or the rural poverty of the Transkei, can tell you those efforts were not enough. "In terms of improving the quality of life, it's a mixed bag," said Finance Minister Trevor Manuel in interview with Time earlier this year. "On broad terms, I think we have been very successful . But the quality of public sector service leaves a hell of a lot to be desired."

No one knows that better than Zuma, who draws much of his support from the malcontents of the townships. So will a Zuma-led ANC do better? Much will depend on the people he gathers around him. There will be some talent. The well-respected Manuel seems likely to stay. So does Hogan. But Zuma's ANC also contains less promising figures. Zuma himself is close to ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, whose campaign speeches stressed the need to resist a British plot to recolonize South Africa. Also once again behind the throne is Winne Madikizela-Mandela, former wife of Nelson Mandela, whose career was thought to be finished in 2003 when she was convicted of fraud but who has been rehabilitated under Zuma.

Finally there is Zuma himself. The new President will be hoping his election will finally draw a line under his legal troubles. That seems unlikely. The accusations against him remain to be answered in court. Even if the opposition Democratic Alliance fails in its attempt to revive the legal case against him, it will not let the issue drop. As it is with his party, so Zuma's best chance of drowning out the allegations against him and restoring his reputation is to deliver in government. That, however, is far more easily said than done.

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