Book Details South Africa From Mandela To Zuma

South Africans go to the polls on Wednesday and Jacob Zuma is almost certain to win the presidency. Alec Russell is author of the book Bring Me My Machine Gun: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa from Mandela to Zuma. Russel talks with Renee Montagne about Zuma, who is the charismatic leader of the African National Congress.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

South Africans go to the polls tomorrow, but it is no mystery who the next president will be. Jacob Zuma, the charismatic leader of the African National Congress or ANC, will almost certainly be elected. Zuma will be a type of president South Africans have not seen before. He's a populist, strongly identified with his Zulu tribe who boasts a campaign song called "Bring Me My Machine Gun."

That's also the title of a new political history of South Africa by journalist Alec Russell. Russell begins the book with the historic presidential election of 15 years ago, which ushered into power, a man imprisoned for nearly three decades under apartheid, Nelson Mandela.

Mr. ALEC RUSSELL (Author): There was this magical, magical moment when millions of people cued under a diamond bright sky for hour after hour to cast their first vote and the whole world was just astounded to see this graceful, elderly man, Nelson Mandela, lead his country into the future and say the past is the past and now is a new beginning.

MONTAGNE: Well, into the presidency steps Thabo Mbeki, the successor to Nelson Mandela, who is the scion of political royalty, probably best known here in America for questioning that HIV causing AIDs, and defending Zimbabwe's leader Robert Mugabe as he drove his country into the ground.

Mr. RUSSELL: Tragically, they are the two things he will be remembered for. They will be on his political tombstone. I mean in Mbeki's defense, briefly, he was a good manager of the economy, and that was terrifically important because so many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, after obtaining independence, saw their economies implode under poor management. But I fear that that is lost now. I mean I think rightly lost, against the legacy of his record on AIDs in particular. I mean AIDS was just disastrous.

MONTAGNE: Which brings us to the man who is now expected to be the next president, Jacob Zuma. Pretty much the opposite in every way of Mbeki?

Mr. RUSSELL: He is a true son of the soil, Jacob, to me. He spent much of his childhood just herding livestock, receiving no education at all, drifted into townships, and still in his teens, uneducated, but he got involved in the movement and became a stalwart of the ANC - actually was educated on Robben Island in his 20s, the prison just off the coast at Cape Town where Mandela had spent so many years.

Zuma spent more than ten years - before he went into exile. And it's there, in exile, that he first came together with Thabo Mbeki and they were the sort yin and yang of the exile movement in a way. They've got Mbeki this professorial dapper man who favored gray suits and dressed almost like a sort of English gentlemen, and Zuma who's a much more rough-hewn character who you'd expect to sort of meet round the bar late at night.

MONTAGNE: And Zuma can really go to the villages and be right there with the people?

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, at least it's one of these great strengths. He can communicate with the large numbers of poor, black South Africans and make them feel that he is one of them, because he is one of them. So when he goes to his home village now in rural Zululand and puts on leopard skins and sits back with a vat of buffalo milk or something, this isn't some political artifice - that is him. And I think that's a very, very useful political asset.

MONTAGNE: So the title of the book, tell us about that: "Bring Me My Machine Gun."

Mr. RUSSELL: "Bring Me My Machine Gun," or as it is in Zulu, Umshini Wami, is the title of one of the legendry anti-apartheid anthems. Zuma brought it back and he sings it at every rally he attends and he sings it with great gusto and indeed with great beauty. He's got a fabulous signing voice. And he uses it as part of his appeal. But of course, you need to do more to lead South Africa than just to feel at home in a rural village.

MONTAGNE: Right. I mean there are some real concerns and some people who are a bit aghast, but a lot of people are also fascinated with him. I mean the lack of a formal education has gotten people worried, as does Zuma's history and associations that involve corruption.

Mr. RUSSELL: I think the lack of a formal education - I've asked him about this a number of times and he quite understandably, legitimately says, look, the fact that I, Jacob Zuma, haven't had a brilliant education doesn't matter as long as I chose the right advisors and make the right decisions.

What I'd be slightly more concerned about, having observed his career, is his judgment. And you mentioned the corruption, well, that's far and away the biggest cloud of all. He, himself, has recently had charges against him dropped. There were 17 of them, they included money laundering, racketeering, fraud - I mean, a lengthy list. And it does seem there was an element of politicization in the prosecution. Nonetheless, he's never had the chance to clear himself in court, so that the cloud remains.

MONTAGNE: And also, something of a cloud, he was acquitted of charges that he raped a young woman who was HIV positive.

Mr. RUSSELL: This case was two or three years ago and he never denied that he had sexual relations with a young woman who was staying the night in his house, who was the daughter of an old family friend, and he - she was HIV positive and he knew it and they had unprotected sex. Well, in a country with an appalling HIV AIDs rate, that's hardly a clever signal to send. So that was point number one.

And point number two, in his trial, he referred to how in Zulu custom, because she was wearing a short skirt, it was seen as an invitation for him to make his advances on her. Well, he was acquitted, but these comments will return to haunt him.

MONTAGNE: Much has been made in the gossip columns about Jacob Zuma's several wives, which is not usual for political leaders in South Africa, but he's -that's a Zulu custom.

Mr. RUSSELL: You're completely right. It has caused endless comment in South Africa's papers. He's pretty exasperated in regards - as a sort of a snooty response of cosmopolitan city dwellers. He is an unashamed polygamist. He has, at the moment, simultaneously, at least three, if not four wives, and more than 20 children.

MONTAGNE: Hmm. And of course, not necessarily relevant to how much - what kind of leader he'll be, but… So what kind of president do you think he would be?

Mr. RUSSELL: Look, there is a chance, Zuma will be just what South Africa needs. He says he'll stand for one term and he says that he will focus on health, education, and crime.

So if Zuma does these things, if he does confront Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, if he does bring down violent crime, and if he does tackle education and health -then hurray, this is just what South Africa needs. So, I suppose to be fair on him, I have to say, well, now's the time to deliver.

You've had a controversial past, but you say these are the things you want to do. Well, do them, and in a few years time, everyone will be saying what a great president. But will he? We'll see.

MONTAGNE: Alec Russell is the author of "Bring Me My Machine Gun: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa from Mandela to Zuma." This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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Zuma Favored To Be South Africa's Next President

African National Congress presidential favorite Jacob Zuma at a campaign rally, April 19. i i

African National Congress presidential favorite Jacob Zuma dances at a campaign rally in Johannesburg, South Africa, April 19. John Moore/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption John Moore/Getty Images
African National Congress presidential favorite Jacob Zuma at a campaign rally, April 19.

African National Congress presidential favorite Jacob Zuma dances at a campaign rally in Johannesburg, South Africa, April 19.

John Moore/Getty Images

The ruling African National Congress is widely predicted to win Wednesday's election in South Africa, a victory that would likely make party leader Jacob Zuma the country's next president.

A man who stirs controversy, Zuma is a polygamist who has faced rape and corruption charges.

But he also is a populist, widely respected for his part in the battle to win black rule for South Africa.

Born 67 years ago in poverty-stricken KwaZulu-Natal province, Zuma grew up without a father. He helped his mother, a domestic worker, by working as a cattle herder and kitchen boy, and he never received formal education.

'Warrior Elite'

"He's always been one of the warrior elite of the movement," says Dali Tambo, who grew up hearing about men like Zuma. His father, Oliver Tambo, was the ANC's president in exile for more than two decades and acted as a mentor to Zuma.

Zuma fought for his country's liberation from apartheid — including joining the ANC's armed resistance and spending a decade imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela.

Lately, Zuma has had to fight for his political life.

Rape, Corruption Charges

In 2005, an HIV-positive woman accused Zuma of rape.

Though acquitted, he was widely lampooned for testifying that taking a shower was his only precaution against contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The same year, Zuma was tainted in a corruption case involving a French arms company seeking a multimillion-dollar deal with South Africa.

Because of the charges, South African President Thabo Mbeki fired Zuma as his deputy president in 2005.

From then until earlier this month, Zuma faced various corruption and fraud charges, all of which were eventually dropped. But they continue to cast a shadow.

Political Warfare?

Zuma insisted that the charges were politically motivated as he and Mbeki fought for control of the African National Congress. And despite the court battles, Zuma won control of the ANC last December, setting the stage for his likely ascent to the presidency.

Zuma has said repeatedly that he is innocent.

When the prosecuting authority recently dropped charges on a technicality, Zuma addressed the nation in a media conference that was broadcast live:

"My conscience is clear. I have not committed any crime against the state or the people of South Africa," Zuma declared. "I've been clearly vindicated."

Mandela, the country's first black president and its moral leader, has not commented directly on Zuma's candidacy. But he shared the stage with Zuma at a massive rally in Johannesburg on Sunday. It was a rare public appearance by the frail, 90-year-old Mandela that many here viewed as a stamp of approval.

Opposition parties insist they will see to it that Zuma has his day in court. The leader of South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance party, Helen Zille, says there is still much evidence against Zuma.

"There's a huge case against him, with 93,000 documents. No one has ever disputed the validity of those documents or the strength of that case, and that needs to go to trial," Zille says.

'Suspicion Stacked Against Him'

Opinion polls predict that the ANC will win the election with at least 60 percent of the vote. The president is then elected by parliament.

In a recent editorial, The Sunday Times wrote: "[Zuma] will assume the mantle of Nelson Mandela with suspicion stacked against him and the perception widely held that he can be bought. ... Critics and avowed foes will be watching for the first sign of moral turpitude."

A similar theme has been struck by COPE, an opposition political party formed in December by breakaway ANC members angered that Mbeki was forced out by Zuma last fall. Its presidential candidate, Mvume Dandala, who is a cleric, also argues that Zuma has not cleared his name.

"It is unfortunate when there are very crucial issues — issues relating to corruption and so on — that are being asked, for a person not to stop and clear those first and then come and be available to the nation. I would have been happier for Mr. Zuma to actually become president having demonstrated and proven to the South African people his innocence of the things that are being alleged against him," Dandala says.

Nobel laureate and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has called Zuma "unfit to be president."

But George Lebusa, who recently organized more than 500 church leaders to endorse the ANC manifesto, says Zuma is a person with "a heart for people."

"He is a person who understands God. And he believes in the power of prayer. And he believes what we believe as Christians with our moral values," Lebusa says.

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Bring Me My Machine Gun

The Battle for the Soul of South Africa, from Mandela to Zuma

by Alec Russell

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