Is South Africa's Zuma Good For The U.S.?

African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma casts his vote in South Africa's general elections i

African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma casts his vote in South Africa's general elections at the Ntolwane primary school in his rural village of Nkandla, north of Durban, April 22. The ruling ANC party is tipped to win the election, setting up the 67-year-old to become South Africa's next president. Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images
African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma casts his vote in South Africa's general elections

African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma casts his vote in South Africa's general elections at the Ntolwane primary school in his rural village of Nkandla, north of Durban, April 22. The ruling ANC party is tipped to win the election, setting up the 67-year-old to become South Africa's next president.

Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images

With an overwhelming victory predicted for his party in Wednesday's election, African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma is poised to become president of South Africa, the continent's strongest economic power.

Although Zuma is best known as a former rebel fighter and a scandal-plagued politician, it is less clear what he would be like as a national leader. The popular Zuma is expected to be elected by the new parliament when it convenes in May.

Many analysts predict his presidency will advance the sometimes rocky U.S.-South African relationship.

Zuma is immensely popular with South Africa's poor, but his career has been clouded by sex and corruption scandals that have tainted his reputation. In the run-up to the election, the 67-year-old leader was careful to indicate that he is not planning major changes in a government that has been generally cooperative with the West.

"I expect U.S. relations with him are going to be very positive," says Richard Joseph, professor of international history and politics at Northwestern University. "There are so many issues on the African continent for which we need South Africa's help ... We can't keep him at arm's length."

A Prickly Relationship

Relations often were strained between the Bush administration and former South African President Thabo Mbeki, especially over policy toward neighboring Zimbabwe. After Zimbabwe's authoritarian leader, Robert Mugabe, refused to accept an election loss, Mbeki helped broker a power-sharing agreement that kept Mugabe in power.

During the election campaign, Zuma criticized Mbeki's policy and indicated that as president, he may take a harder line toward Mugabe.

Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., notes that Mbeki was also a frequent critic of the Bush administration on global issues, such as the war in Iraq and the U.S. prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"On the South African side, the U.S. criticized Mbeki for his stance on Zimbabwe and HIV/AIDS," Cooke says. "Obama has a chance for a much more open relationship with South Africa."

Mbeki, who was forced out last fall after losing a party power struggle in the ANC, was known for his opposition to orthodox scientific views on HIV, saying that much Western opinion on the disease stems from a racist view of Africans as being promiscuous. Critics say Mbeki's views as president set back efforts to combat AIDS with education programs and drugs.

Zuma's Clouded Career

Zuma has had his own troubles with the HIV/AIDS issue. Although he was once responsible for the government's public education campaign on AIDS, he acknowledged having had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman. He faced ridicule after saying that he had "minimized" the risk of contracting the virus by taking a shower.

Zuma was accused of rape in connection with that incident, but was acquitted after a trial in 2006.

Cooke notes that Zuma's career has been clouded by corruption charges "that were not entirely put to bed." He was charged with 16 counts of corruption related to an arms deal, but prosecutors dropped those charges earlier this month. The action cleared the way for Zuma's election bid, but some supporters say it would have been better for him to clear his name by facing trial rather than risking a tainted presidency.

Cooke says there are a number of factors that point to a stronger relationship between the U.S. and South Africa, regardless of Zuma's reputation. She says it will be important to see who he keeps around him in a Zuma-led government.

"He's unlikely to jettison successful figures from the previous administration," she says. "There's already a very strong commercial relationship between the two countries, and strong military cooperation, too. You just have to work with South Africa as a continental leader."

A Charismatic Leader

Throughout Zuma's legal troubles, his supporters have stood by him as a genuine African leader. They point to his boyhood as an illiterate herdsman in South Africa's Zulu heartland, his years in prison with Nelson Mandela, and his rise in the struggle against apartheid.

Zuma is known as a spellbinding speaker, who sometimes breaks into his trademark song, "Bring Me My Machine Gun," from his rebel youth. He is seen as a champion of South Africa's poor, both black and white.

Michael Allen, a professor of political science at Bryn Mawr College, agrees that it will be necessary for the U.S. to engage with Zuma "to the extent that the South African people have chosen him. It would be disrespectful to their process not to."

Allen says that Zuma's style is far different from Mbeki's.

"Mbeki was noted for being too intrusive as a policy manager. Zuma is more like Ronald Reagan; he's charismatic. There needs to be an institutional management culture supporting Zuma, so the details are taken care of," Allen says.

A key test for Zuma as president will be how he handles debate within the ruling African National Congress party. The various components of the ANC, especially South Africa's powerful trade unions, need to provide an effective counterweight to the president's power, Allen says.

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