IN THE SUMMER of 2006, I witnessed one of the innumerable trials of Jacob Zuma. The future president of South Africa was facing charges of corruption, having been acquitted of rape just months earlier. Outside the courthouse in Pietermaritzburg, a small city about an hour’s drive west of Durban, Zuma would daily ascend a stage in the town square before a crowd of thousands of Zulu supporters, who had been bussed in from all over the region. There he performed his trademark dance routine, sung to the tune of an apartheid-era “struggle song” entitled “Umshini wami,” or, “Bring Me My Machine Gun.” It was impossible to deny Zuma’s spine-tingling charisma, which easily rivaled that of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, or any other superstar politico.
Up to that point, my impression of Zuma had been formed from afar, based upon the copious media coverage that portrayed him alternately as a dimwit misogynist and a dangerous demagogue. Zuma’s reputation seemed to have been irreparably sealed in a remark made at his rape case, in the course of which, while admitting to engaging in unprotected consensual sex with his HIV-positive accuser, he claimed to have staved off infection by taking a shower after intercourse. (South Africa, it should be noted, has more HIV-positive individuals than any other nation on earth.) While I wasn’t completely won over by Zuma’s magnetism, seeing him in the flesh helped me to at least understand his massive appeal. I even felt a bit of sympathy for him.
One of the most amusing descriptions of this already colorful political figure is offered by Stephen Chan, a professor of international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Zuma, he writes, is “a giant karaoke machine made flesh.” In Southern Africa: Old Treacheries and New Deceits, his latest book on the region, Chan contributes to our understanding of this part of the world with a combination of academic expertise and journalistic trekking. He attempts to explain the personalities of the people who rule in this region, not just the politics. Chan’s focus is on South Africa and Zimbabwe, as he argues, rightfully, that the countries are historically, culturally, economically, and politically linked. The former is the continent’s economic powerhouse, whose rainbow nation narrative has earned it tremendous international goodwill, most recently expressed in its being chosen to host last year’s soccer World Cup. Meanwhile, the latter’s degeneration from supposed success story to horror show under the over thirty-year rule of the once-lauded liberation hero Robert Mugabe has grimly fascinated in ways that other African despotisms fail to do. Neither nation can be fully understood without understanding the other, and this requires an assessment of individual leaders. Chan’s purpose, he writes, is “to endow what the Western media has turned into black caricatures with the same sort of life we would automatically assume was inherent in Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Bush, Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy.”
It may come as a shock to read that Nelson Mandela “was actually not a good president,” but it is hard to argue with the facts. By the time he became president, Mandela was seventy-six. While his personal courage and redemptive foresight in guiding his country through a period in which it could very easily have fallen into all-out civil war should not be doubted, Mandela had no experience running a large organization, never mind Africa’s biggest economy. Practically a figurehead from the start, Mandela ended up leaving most of the work to his then-deputy Thabo Mbeki, the Anglophile (yet furiously anti-colonial) technocrat who had spent the apartheid years in exile. (Some of Chan’s most interesting writing comes when he describes the ideological differences that developed between the African National Congress exiles and “inziles,” those who were either imprisoned by the regime or fought against it underground, and how these two camps competed amongst each other for power once the party was unbanned in 1990.) Though Mbeki’s legacy is mostly comprised of his disastrous non-response to the AIDS crisis, running diplomatic interference for Mugabe, and overseeing a spiraling crime rate, Chan emphasizes how “the ANC [African National Congress] did not become the authoritarian party and fractious agglomeration of factions that it did simply from Day One of Thabo Mbeki.” Mandela’s detached leadership and failure to mediate intra-ANC conflicts played a role too.
In every election since the country’s first non-racial one in 1994, the ANC has won either two-thirds of parliament or close to it, rendering South Africa what political scientists refer to as a “one-party dominant democracy.” While Chan does not hesitate to criticize the ANC, he is unwilling to go as far as other critics in examining the implications of the party’s alliance with the Soviet Union and continued allegiance with the South African Communist Party. (For more on this important topic, interested readers should reference R.W. Johnson’s latest book, the magisterial South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country Since the End of Apartheid.) Simply put, the ANC is not liberal in its political ideology, nor in its internal bureaucratic structure, nor in its view of South Africa’s role in the world. In this way it is similar to other African liberation parties-cum-political movements that have had a near-universally ruinous effect across the continent.
The tragedy, as Chan writes, is that the country’s politics under ANC hegemony “turned from its mission to the people into a soap opera of personalities and vendettas.” It is Chan’s purpose to explain these personalities, their “old treacheries and new deceits,” and he does a fairly good job of it, although admitting the fundamental truth about Mugabe—that he was rotten to begin with, and not a good guy “gone bad,” as so much of the contemporary journalism about Mugabe boils down—eludes him. Mugabe, Chan writes, fits the profile of a Greek tragic figure, because he began as a hero but wound up a monstrous villain. Chan is too quick to dismiss those who painted Mugabe as a villain from the start. (Not everything that Ian Smith—the late Prime Minister of the rebel white colony of Rhodesia—said was false.) For instance, Chan characterizes the general white Rhodesian attitude about Mugabe during the country’s civil war (which lasted from 1964-1979), thus: “For Mugabe was a declared Marxist, a devil—a black devil—who would abolish Christianity, Mom, Apple Pie and Christmas. That was the white fear.”
There is no denying that plain racism was a factor in the minds of many whites at the time. But by the late 1970s, most of them were supportive of a negotiated settlement with moderate black leaders that would have ensured majority rule (albeit with a reserved number of seats for the white minority, a system that would gradually be phased out). Chan too easily ridicules those who saw Mugabe for what he was—a ruthless tyrant—and conflates the racists with those whites (and blacks!) who voiced apprehensions about the man who would indeed become Zimbabwe’s unending tormentor. All Chan will concede is that if he was wrong about Mugabe, then so was practically everyone else. “Almost all those in the West who have followed the fortunes of Zimbabwe, and who demonize Mugabe now, were his fervent believers on that day,” Chan remarks about the reaction to the conciliatory speech Mugabe delivered on the day he took power in 1980, which indeed surprised many of his white critics. But this doesn’t absolve Chan, or any of the others who had the ability to acknowledge the truth about Mugabe but refused, for whatever reason, to accept it.
Chan has a strange skill for describing situations accurately yet arriving at questionable conclusions. He is intimately familiar with Zimbabwe’s other major political figure, Morgan Tsvangirai, the courageous trade unionist turned opposition leader, with whom Chan conducted a series of interviews that were published in book form five years ago. Chan succinctly encapsulates the country’s presidential election of 2008, which Mugabe killed and stole his way into winning, when he writes that, “One man talked about the future. The other talked about the past.” He describes how that election was rigged, getting into granular detail about questionable results in obscure precincts. It is odd, then, that Chan could defend Mbeki’s post-election diplomacy, which enabled the dictator to remain as president after he refused to acknowledge the result and step down.
Chan has been traveling to the region frequently for three decades, and he sprinkles his book with anecdotes and gossip that make this account far livelier than the average university press regional study. Yet his appetite for intrigue and his desire to show off his street knowledge occasionally leads him astray, as when he writes that the Mossad aided Mugabe’s election theft in 2008 (an assertion that he sources to “the rumour mill in Harare,”) or when he writes of a young American woman, “reputed to have been employed by the Heritage Foundation,” advising Tsvangirai. This style of reporting may fly in the British press, but it ought not make it past the editors at an academic publisher.
“Struggle songs” continue to play an important role in South African politics, but with apartheid long dead and buried, their use has become anachronistic at best, and dangerously provocative at worse. “Jacob Zuma is one of only a handful of world leaders who is a polygamist, but he is alone in his use of songline,” writes Chan. But Zuma, who is a proud husband to three women and father to twenty children, has been eclipsed by another ANC leader in his use of songline, one whose intentions are far less benign. Julius Malema, head of the party’s youth league, was recently found guilty of using hate speech in his campaigning across the country while singing a song with the lyrics, “Shoot the Boer.” Malema hails Mugabe’s land grabs, promising that, under ANC leadership, South Africa will soon follow suit and nationalize its farms and mines. Yet Malema is a personality whom Chan largely ignores, perhaps because he has only emerged as a significant political figure over the past two years. Zuma, safe to say, did not materialize as the dangerous demagogue that I, and many others, dreaded him to be. Whether the fears about his young colleague prove accurate will determine much of the future course of the region.
James Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and a contributing editor of The New Republic.