After acquittal, consider Zuma innocent

He has a reputation of calling a spade a spade, rather than an implement for digging, and for being his own man, one prepared to make his own judgements, good or bad, rather than accept a set of off-the-shelf beliefs. Even his enemies cannot call him a system politician, and even his friends must at times wince over his forthright comments. As such he is a leaven in politics, a career that can too often attract the type of man or woman prepared to tack backwards and forwards as he or she perceives public opinion. His background must have reinforced attitudes that come from a powerful personality. He is a Zulu, and proud of it, but he turned his back on narrow sectarian nationalism, unlike the majority of his community, and is also defiantly proud of being a leading member of the ANC, a party that refuses to tolerate narrow nationalism. This break with so many Zulus called for as much courage as that shown by Afrikaners who decided the narrow nationalism of their group was totally wrong. And yet, like them, he has managed to be both a supporter of his own language and culture and a supporter of a wider South African nationality. His talents took him far up the ANC ladder, to the post of deputy president of the party and thus to the deputy presidency of South Africa, a very powerful post. But the antagonisms he has created on the way have made him some very powerful enemies, ones who will believe anything adverse they hear about him and ready, like a pack of wild dogs round a wounded buffalo, to tear him to shreds should be slip. A prime example is the rape case. A lot of people were quite prepared to believe the woman who claimed she had been raped. Fortunately for Mr Zuma, a sensible judge and his assessors in the end found that his version of the facts, sordid as they were, constituted the truth. The judgement went beyond just a finding that there was inadequate evidence to convict; the judge made it plain that the court thought Mr Zuma was telling the truth, despite the damage it would cause him and his career. It is probable that the damage to his reputation has been grossly overestimated. Those who write knowledgeably about such damage have always been in the group that dislike the man. His own supporters are generally less articulate and certainly have less access to the press. To a very large extent what have been called the “chattering classes” are simply writing what they and their friends have always thought of Mr Zuma; and they have always made it clear that they do not like him. There can be no denying that the case and its aftermath have raised questions about whether Mr Zuma would make a good President of South Africa when President Mbeki retires. The polarisation between his supporters and his detractors has widened even further and the invective over his lack of judgement at times will cause some mud to stick. Conviction politicians like Mr Zuma tend to be excellent in emergencies, a prime example being the reactionary old Tory Winston Churchill, hopelessly wrong over some things, like the future of the British Empire, and dead right, in defiance of his own class, over the danger posed by Hitler. They tend to be less useful when compromise and moderation are called for. The ideal, in many respects, is a conviction politician ready and willing to listen to others and to change his stance when he can be shown to be wrong. Such politicians need the guts to have strong-minded advisors ready to stand up to them. Mr Zuma probably realises this. He is making serious efforts to show that he can play with an ANC team, voluntarily suspending his duties when the rape charges were made and now making it clear that the ANC must decide when to reinstate him. In the end it is the people of South Africa who will have to decide whether they want someone like Mr Zuma to lead them. The way he handles himself over the next year to two will be crucial in that decision. He somehow has to, without retreating from his convictions, show that he is ready to be a team player even when leading a team, and that he will seriously consider the views of those who disagree with him, being ready, in fact, to question his own convictions when necessary.

May 2006
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