How Zuma has turned victimhood into victory

The more he is attacked, the greater his popularity. No wonder the ANC leader's rise has become irresistible. Daniel Howden reports

Political campaigning at its most intense is usually unsubtle and often brutal. And there can be few more striking examples of this than the efforts of South Africa's opposition to loosen the grip on power held by the African National Congress party.

What ought to have been a broad-based campaign has been reduced on the eve of the election to "Stop Zuma". This is the slogan splashed across the placards, T-shirts and posters of the main opposition Democratic Alliance. It is also the rallying call for the ANC leader's opponents in South Africa's media and his legion of critics abroad. And yet it is an almost entirely failed strategy. Stopping Zuma has become confined to hoping that the ruling party's 70 per cent share of the vote is reduced to less than the two-thirds it has publicly targeted.

When South Africa goes to the polls tomorrow it will mark the final steps in one man's truly remarkable journey from Zulu goatherd to president and steward of Africa's largest economy.

It is a shift almost as extraordinary in its own way as that of the Obamas, father and son, and their move from a Kenyan village to the White House in two generations. Of course in Mr Zuma's case it has taken only one.

But it is an achievement that has awoken considerable unease over the future of South Africa.

The business community has been spooked by his left wing roots; lawyers have been deeply concerned by his increasingly strident attacks on the judiciary; Aids activists and women's groups were appalled by his comments during a rape trial in which he was acquitted.

The ANC leader has strongly denied any intention to use a two-thirds majority to change the country's vaunted constitution as the apartheid-era leader and Nobel laureate F W De Klerk suggested last week.

No one doubts he is the most African leader the rainbow nation will have had. Unlike his stiff, patrician predecessor Thabo Mbeki, he is a song and dance man as comfortable in Zulu leopard skins as a business suit. And unlike his equally charismatic friend Nelson Mandela who was the descendant of Xhosa kings, Mr Zuma was born to an absentee father and a kitchen maid. What the sniping at his lack of a formal education often ignores is his incredible capacity to absorb knowledge. He learnt to read and write by questioning friends who went to school during the day while he was herding his grandfather's cattle and goats.

When approached by his eventual biographer Jeremy Gordin he replied: "Why should anyone write about me? I'm not an important person. I'm not a rich businessman. I'm not from a politically famous or royal family." He is, as that statement suggests, keenly aware of his differences from South Africa's traditional ruling elite and cunning enough to use that difference to create a competitive advantage.

Speaking to The Independent earlier this year, the DA's leader Helen Zille admitted that personal attacks on Mr Zuma were counterproductive. "I don't want to talk about him personally. Every time I attack him in public he gains another two points in the polls," she said. This makes it all the more surprising that the DA's campaign slogan "Vote to Win" has been relegated to second place behind "Stop Zuma".

Just as Thabo Mbeki discovered when he decided to use corruption allegations to dispose of a political rival, Mr Zuma is adept at using his status as a "victim" to avoid the substance of accusations against him, while turning the tables on his attackers. Andrew Feinstein worked with Mr Zuma as an ANC MP and is among those troubled by the direction he will take the party and the country.

After initially enjoying political protection from the then deputy president, while he investigated alleged wrongdoing in the infamous 1999 arms deal, Mr Feinstein was sidelined when his inquiries affected Mr Zuma himself. "He's charming, with a tough streak. Not particularly bright but he has a shrewdness about him," says Mr Feinstein. The key to understanding the president-in-waiting is his history as head of intelligence in the militant wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), he asserts. "He has used his past in intelligence. He has information on everyone," he says. "The ANC has become a place where dirt is used to gain political ascendancy."

One of the darkest chapters of MK's past was the treatment of suspected informers in the pay of the apartheid security services, an area in which Mr Zuma was heavily involved. Scores of suspects were tortured or killed at the height of the struggle. The period was examined by an ANC commission, which censured Mr Zuma in 1993. Despite these dark suggestions there are many people who expect the coming Zuma presidency to change what has been a poisonous atmosphere in South African politics.

"I'm expecting a whole lot less bitterness," says Gordin, his biographer. "He could even be a Ronald Reagan figure with his likeability and he's not going to be so sombre about everything like Mbeki. "The whole Mbeki-Zuma thing has been a nightmare that kept everyone's attention diverted from the real things." Those real things include "broken promises" on healthcare, crime, water, housing, and other core issues.

While the opposition went for him in an attempt to hurt the ANC, Mr Zuma adopted the footballing approach of "playing the ball not the man", avoiding mention of his political rivals. Even Mr Feinstein, whose book After the Party charts his painful divorce from the ANC, concedes that "the difference in style will be positive". As the polls open tomorrow, the overwhelming sentiment seems to be that he is the people's choice and must now be given an opportunity to govern.

Suggested Topics
The sun rises over St Andrews golf course, but will it be a new dawn for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club?
sportAnd it's Yes to women (at the R&A)
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style

ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week