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“Bring Me My Machine Gun”: South Africa’s Unique New President

April 21, 2009

Newsweek has an interesting profile of South Africa’s next President, Jacob Zuma. A self-characterized “farm boy” and a polygamist who was indicted for, and acquitted of, raping an HIV positive teenager, his rise is troubling to some in the international community who feel he could be a return to the “Big Man” leadership that caused so much turmoil in Africa. The title of this post, for example, is taken from the campaign song he uses.

On the other hand, he is seen as responsive to the people of South Africa, de-emphasizes tribal distinctions that have served to cause conflict in the past and has a conciliatory presence with South Africa’s white community:

But in some ways Zuma offers new hope for a unified South Africa. He demurs at being called the country’s first Zulu president. “The Zuluness is not the big issue,” he says. “I’ve always looked at myself first as a South African—a black South African who always fought for the interests of the oppressed.”

In fact, he has a strong record as a man who transcends ethnic and even racial barriers. He had a vital role 10 years ago in ending the virtual civil war between the ANC and armed followers of Zulu political leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a conflict that left thousands dead. In the past couple of years Zuma has reached out to the country’s white-minority Afrikaners, calling them “the white tribe of Africa.” One problem: many English-speaking South Africans now feel left out. Recently the president-to-be met for three hours with a delegation from the country’s second-largest labor union, Solidarity, with 130,000 mostly Afrikaner members. (He speaks at least a little Afrikaans himself.) “He doesn’t always take up your concerns and be a Mr. Fix-It, but he does listen,” says Dirk Hermann, the union’s head. “And that’s hugely important for us. He’s like a Zulu king, sitting under his tree, listening to his tribe.” Zuma’s challenge now is to make sure his tribe includes everyone in South Africa.

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