Jazz Key To Interpreting South African Leadership Sometimes, music provides an insight into people that words alone can't grab. Jazz is a language used by many South Africans to interpret their country's leadership.
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Jazz Key To Interpreting South African Leadership

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Jazz Key To Interpreting South African Leadership

Jazz Key To Interpreting South African Leadership

Jazz Key To Interpreting South African Leadership

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Sometimes, music provides an insight into people that words alone can't grab. Jazz is a language used by many South Africans to interpret their country's leadership.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. A political drama can unfold like a great piece of music. In South Africa, a recent change in leadership set a new tone and a new rhythm for the entire population. NPR's Gwen Thompkins noticed that people were using the language of jazz to describe the country's leadership. And she sent us this musical report from Johannesburg.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

GWEN THOMPKINS: The jazz great Miles Davis may have no bigger fan in South Africa than the writer Fred Comollo (ph). He can talk about Davis from the "Birth of the Cool" album all the way to that Michael Jackson cover tune that everybody likes so much. You know, "Human Nature." So when Comollo was on his day job as a newspaper columnist, he can describe South Africa's presidential politics as a series of Miles Davis-inspired melodies. Here's his take on former president Thabo Mbeki.

Mr. FRED COMLOLLO (Writer, South Africa): "Kind of Blue," laid-back, melodious, focused.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song "So What")

THOMPKINS: Every note on the album and in Mbeki's 10 years is measured, polished, deliberate. The logical progressions are all there. But in Mbeki's case, there are also signs of faulty logic. For nearly a decade, Mbeki was a brilliant steward of the nation's economy, but he could never figure out how to employ millions of South Africans living in poverty. He was a consummate statesman in Africa, but he was too little too late on the calamity of neighboring Zimbabwe. And like Miles Davis himself, Mbeki is generally seen as, well, kind of cold.

Now, Comollo says, the ruling African National Congress has flipped the album entirely. Listen to his take on Jacob Zuma, the new leader of the party and the king maker of South African politics.

(Soundbite of "Bitches Brew")

Mr. COMOLLO: "Bitches Brew" - a lot of emotion, and disconnection, and energy, and maybe unfocused energy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of trumpet)

THOMPKINS: For South Africa, Zuma is a major chord change. Most of his support comes from this nation's enormous underclass. But Zuma also has broad support from well-to-do South Africans who couldn't bear the Mbeki presidency for one more day.

Mr. JULELA MANU (Political Columnist): Zuma is the only person who could have overthrown Thabo Mbeki at that particular point in time.

THOMPKINS: That's Julela Manu (ph). He's another political columnist and another serious Miles Davis fan. Manu wrote the other day that tears came to his eyes when South Africa's parliament replaced Mbeki. The nation's new president is Kgalema Motlante, a close ally hand-chosen by Zuma, but Motlante is widely seen as an interim leader. Zuma is expected to be the ANC's choice for president next year.

Mr. MANU: He's a less than optimal candidate, but far better than what we've had thus far. He would be better than Mbeki in my view.

THOMPKINS: Right now, Zuma is busy promising all things to all South Africans. He often contradicts himself, promising jobs and services to the underclass and no change in economic policy to the middle class. Fred Comollo is writing an unauthorized biography of Zuma.

Mr. COMOLLO: It's very easy to sell slogans. Zuma has been thriving on that. I think a few years down the line, that is going to haunt him. Because people are going to say, why can't you deliver?

THOMPKINS: And there are big contradictions in his personal life. Zuma has never been convicted of a crime in post-apartheid South Africa, but he has never escaped the odor of corruption in connection with a bad arms deal years ago. He's a polygamist, a widower, and a divorcee.

In 2005, when Zuma headed South Africa's National AIDs Council, he knowingly had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive family friend. She said he raped her. Zuma was later acquitted of the charge after a sensational trial. Outside the courthouse, he sang his theme song, titled "Get Me My Machine Gun." Fred Comollo says Zuma's recent conduct seems unbefitting a man of his smarts. After all, Zuma is the former head of intelligence and security for the ANC.

Mr. COMOLLO: I think the guy has lost it. His sense of judgment is messed up. He admitted in court that he slept with that girl, and, of course, there were insinuations that he had been set up. So, let's assume he had been set up. How can you not see through that?

THOMPKINS: But Zuma's talent as a spy are legendary. Marco Vizer (ph) has written a book on the future of the ANC. He says the very skills that Zuma courted as an intelligence chief have served him well politically.

Mr. MARCO VIZER (Writer): Does this mean that Jacob Zuma is going to be the South African Vladimir Putin? I don't know. Clearly, Zuma managed to tap in to sort of widespread discontent with Thabo Mbeki and the elite that he represented.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

THOMPKINS: But the funny thing is that South Africans appear to like who they've got. Nearly everybody has a kind word to say about the current president, Kgalema Motlante. Black people, white people, rich, poor, old, young. As a veteran of the infamous Robin Island Prison, Motlante has street credibility in the struggle against apartheid. He has come up through the labor movement and party ranks. He keeps his personal life out of the press. He's known to work well with others. And he's as a cool as Zuma is hot. Have you ever heard that Miles Davis song, "I Don't Want To Be Kissed by Anybody But You"?

(Soundbite of jazz music)

THOMPKINS: Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Johannesburg.

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