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
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The Independent Online

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.