Maureen Isaacson: I fear for South Africa's women in the Zuma era

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As Jacob Zuma took the crown as president of the ANC, South Africa's ruling party, in the city of Polokwane this week, champagne spilled among the victors. Elsewhere, disppointment and fear took hold as the country faced a divided ANC.

The electorate who had voted Zuma in on a pro-poor ticket got to hear some curious reports. On his whirlwind charm offensive of western capitals, Zuma had announced there would be no shift to the left in his policies.

Just because he enjoyed the support of the trade unions, the youth leagues of the ANC and the South African Communist party as well as of the Communist party itself did not mean he was going to lift the dispossessed out of the middle-class elitist rut of which it has fallen foul.

Quite what he is going to do is not clear either. And it is this fear of the unknown, as well as the unknown person who is Zuma, that is the worry. Zuma's election has proved that a humble herd boy from Kwa Zulu-Natal, the son of a policeman and a domestic worker, can rise to dizzy heights and charge around the country in a convoy of big black German cars. It has proved that if you are Zuma you can go out on a campaign trail boasting that in fact you have no policies of your own, that your policies are those of the ANC and that you will not deviate from these and still be voted the best man. Surely he has noticed from the increasing service-delivery protests under Thabo Mbeki's leadership that economic success that serves only a rising middle class is of no use to the poor?

Coming hot on the heels of the tweedy, pipe-smoking, Yeats-quoting, internet surfing Mbeki, whom Zuma has referred to as "the briefcase president", he hopefully has some new tricks up his sleeve.

He has promised that he will declare a national emergency on crime and Aids. What exactly this means is another point of imprecision. And we can surely be relieved that Mbeki's denialism is behind us. A recent UN Aids report revealed that South Africa has the highest number of Aids infections in the world, and 1,000 people die of Aids-related illnesses daily. But is Zuma the right man to tackle this crisis?

Last year, during a rape trial in which he was acquitted, some patriarchal views returned us to the dark ages. We learned that women who wear short skirts are looking for sex, and that Zulu men, (for Zuma is a Zulu), are obliged to satisfy women whom they have aroused. Zuma was accused of tribalism, populism, you name it. But, to be fair, his reach is inclusive and he has not traded on ethnicity in his campaign although it surely does not count against him among those who have referred to the country's leadership as the Xhosa-nostra.

During the trial, Zuma, who admitted to having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman, said he took a shower afterwards, to prevent infection. But it wasn't just male supporters who embraced Zuma and burned his rape complainant in effigy outside the court.

He apologised afterwards, to the country, for these admissions, just as he later apologised for an admission of homophobia which clashed horribly with the famously tolerant constitution that was later to give same-sex marriage its blessing.

Zuma was forgiven, embraced too, for showing that he is human, that he too could suffer humiliation and victimisation. But women fear that Zuma's election will bring a reversal of the remarkable advances in gender equity that we have made.

Zuma's election on Tuesday night revealed that a show of charisma, and the machismo that comes with being a traditionalist polygamist, can allow you to slide into, and out of, statements about sexuality and homosexuality with apologies and winning smiles and be perceived as a man with great leadership qualities.

Before his fall from grace, when he lost his position as the country's deputy president because of alleged corruption, and before his rape trial, Zuma headed up the moral regeneration movement. He spread the message of Aids awareness. His remarkable ability to ride the obvious contradictions he presents are alone deserving of a medal. He is, however, aware of the fears that his election has brought and has tried to placate the country.

He knows that the flip-side, the contradiction of fear of the unknown, is hope. And we allow hope to flood in as we look to the five new faces who are going to help steer Zuma to prosperity and peace. We will focus on these goals as we join in Zuma's signature liberation song, rousing his followers to action: it is called Lethu Mshini Wami; it translates as "Bring me my machine gun".

Maureen Isaacson is literary editor of the 'Sunday Independent' newspaper in Johannesburg

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