South African President Jacob Zuma, the former soldier in the military wing of the African National Congress, has emerged as a significant African statesman, both internationally and domestically. His newly-realized skills in that regard are challenged by his current effort to mediate between Zimbabwe’s ruling party and its opposition partners in the Government of National Unity.
Zuma, who has led South Africa since May 2009, was asked by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to mediate between President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front and the two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Despite a 2008 Global Political Agreement that led to a unity government, Mugabe has refused to fully implement it. Recently, Mugabe stripped opposition ministers of their power, leading to a deadlock in continuing with the unity government. Zuma has been asked to put the process back on track and is in Harare this week to do just that.
Although he has his work cut out for him in dealing with a recalcitrant ruling party and a fractious opposition, Zuma is in a far different position in dealing with Mugabe than his predecessor – Thabo Mbeki. Zuma is a veteran of the armed struggle against the white minority regime in South Africa and spent time in the prison on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela. Mbeki is the son of an anti-apartheid hero – Govan Mbeki – but lived in exile for much of the time until the ANC was unbanned. Zuma is a supporter of trade unions in South Africa and in Zimbabwe, which have opposed Mugabe’s rule. Mbeki was hated by South Africa’s unions and had no relationship with or apparent sympathy for unions in Zimbabwe.
Lasting success in Zimbabwe remains to be seen, but Zuma, the leftist supported by the South African Communist Party, evidently has worked his charms on the British government and business community. He impressed the Queen and even an initially skeptical media with his stamina and constant good humor. Zuma overcame even the disagreement with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on lifting sanctions on Zimbabwe. He stressed education during his state visit and offered to use the power of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa to benefit education. The business community likely breathed a sigh of relief at his assurances that his government would not nationalize mines or mineral resources. According to the British Broadcasting Corporation, the enduring memory of his United Kingdom visit “will be his broad smile.”
Back home, Zuma also is employing his charm and his authority as President. At the request of the Afrikaner community in South Africa, Zuma had a private dinner with Afrikaner leaders at his official residence in Pretoria. The President assured his guests that he understood the need for all South Africans to be a part of the larger community. The meeting was necessary because of statements by ANC Youth League President Julius Malema, who called one white political leader a “Satanist” and urged nationalization of South African mines, among other incendiary statements.
Malema’s divisive statements are symptomatic of tensions within the ruling ANC. BusinessDay reported that the party’s National Executive Committee has been forced to instill discipline among its fractious elements. While cushioning the blow to Malema, who is favored by his base in the ANC’s leftist elements, Zuma did support warnings by party leaders to halt public spats by party figures.
Thus far, Zuma has been successful in at least beginning détente between his government and the United Kingdom public and private sectors, supporting internal peace within his ruling party even at the expense of offending his political base and reaching out a hand of cooperation to those who jailed him. Whatever his previous political problems he may have had or the humility of his background, President Zuma is becoming an African statesman to be reckoned with.