The election of Jacob Zuma to the South African presidency has raised concerns about the future of the 'Rainbow Nation'. "He has four wives!" read some of the headlines of the British tabloids, although we have never seen similar headlines for, say, Arab kings. It so happens that Zulus are polygamous, and that is an accepted practice under South African customary law.
It may be that we have got too used to the Westernised image of South Africa projected by Zuma's predecessors - Nelson Mandela, with his regal demeanour, and Thabo Mbeki, with his two-toned shirts and his pipe - but there is also "another South Africa", to be found, among other places, in the lowlands of Kwazulu Natal, on the Indian Ocean, where Zuma was brought up, and herded goats for much of his childhood.
Zuma has been haunted by corruption allegations and for his seeming lack of awareness of the dangers of AIDS in the country with the highest rate of HIV. The corruption charges have now been thrown out. Indications are he will continue the aggressive anti-AIDS policies enacted by President Kgalema Motlanthe through his Health Minister Barbara Hauger.
Zuma is also seen as a populist, who will "say whatever his audience wants to hear". This was never Mbeki's style, who, as a Sussex-trained economist, knows very well his supply and demand curves.
Will South Africa manage to preserve the credibility it has gained over the past 15 years under the economic stewardship of ministers such as Trevor Manuel in finance and Alec Erwin in trade and industry?
That is the million-dollar question. Negotiations in course, designed to keep Manuel and others in their portfolios, would seem to indicate Zuma is in no rush to enact the populist policies his detractors accuse him of harbouring in his heart.
But the subtext of this concern springs from Zuma's rusticity and his being a product of adult education. The contrast with Mandela, the suave lawyer with an extraordinary command of the English language, and Mbeki, the ultimate technocrat, who would spend many a night on the Internet doing his own research for micro-managing government, could not be greater.
Still, Zuma himself acknowledges that it was Mbeki who introduced him to the use of weapons such as the AK-47. The ANC battle song, sung in Zulu, is Umshini Wami, "Bring me my machine gun", a song closely associated with Zuma, and the title of an excellent recent book by Alec Russell on South African politics. Even Archbishop Tutu, that most gracious of public personalities, has expressed his scepticism, saying that he would like to see leaders South Africans "can look up to".
Will a man with such a bare-bones education be able to run Africa's largest economy? Will South Africa become another Zimbabwe?
Facing many challenges
South Africa is facing many challenges, of which violent crime and a high unemployment rate (estimated at 20 per cent, though many would put it at 40 per cent) are only two. One should never underestimate the possibilities of things going south in the middle of a global meltdown like the present one. Yet, my impression is that South Africa, that "achingly beautiful country" as my good friend Professor Kader Asmal likes to refer to it, will do all right.
South Africa is not Somalia, nor even Zimbabwe. In fact, its social, economic and even political structure (with parties like the African National Congress, founded in 1912) looks more like a South American than a Southern African nation. This is an advanced economy with a sophisticated manufacturing sector, as well as some of the top mining companies anywhere and a dynamic agriculture. There are first-rate universities. There is both a white and a black middle class, and its political institutions, including the very liberal 1996 Constitution, have shown their resilience.
South Africa is now past the stage of needing miracles to survive. Informed, experienced political management will do, and the ANC and its cadres have proved their mettle. It has strong institutions, like its top-notch Constitutional Court, a lively Parliament and a judiciary known for its independence, as well as a free press.
Zuma, an old political hand, who spent time in Robben Island and was later the ANC intelligence chief, also brings something else to the Union Buildings, the seat of government in Pretoria. He is a Zulu, a member of South Africa's largest ethnic group, after two Xhosa presidents, in a party historically run by Xhosas. That is a big change and does much to consolidate South Africa's democratic transition in a heterogeneous, multi-ethnic society with 11 official languages. Blacks, whites, Indians and Coloureds have learned to live together in peace, but this is very much a work in progress.
Biggest ethnic group
The great paradox of South African politics is that the Zulus (who number 11 million out of a total population of 48 million) are the biggest ethnic group among Africans (the Xhosa are eight million), and yet had never been able to access the presidency. Much of the rural Zulu vote has been cornered by the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, but the somewhat narrow, if not downright sectarian approach of the IFP has meant that other South Africans see no reason to back them. With Zuma's election, support for the IFP has declined.
The secret of the success of the ANC, on the other hand, can be traced to its being a 'broad church', that has brought together South Africans from all backgrounds, and has always affirmed its ecumenical character. It just so happens that its top leaders have been Xhosas, generally from the Eastern Cape.
By electing a Zulu to the presidency, the ANC has reached out decisively to other communities in the land and taken an important step to consolidate South African unity in diversity.
Jorge Heine holds the Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and is a distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Ontario. Feedback may be sent to [email protected]