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Zero-ing In On Zuma

Since nearly every South African political commentator has decried Jacob Zuma's victory last month in his bid to become president of the African National Congress (which essentially means he'll become president of South Africa), it is refreshing to read Joshua Kurlantzick's attempt today to divine a silver lining. Considering the one-party dominant nature of South Africa's young democracy, the notion of an intraparty split in the ANC brought about by the rivalry between Zuma and South African President Thabo Mbeki whets the appetite. Kurlantzick is also right to note that the peaceful transition of power within the ANC bodes well for South Africa, seeing how the notion of a leader giving up control without killing people is essentially unheard of anywhere else on the continent (see Kenya for but the latest example).

Yet while there's a lining to this story -- all but ignored by the press -- I'm not so sure it's silver, because at the end of the day Jacob Zuma is going to be president of South Africa. And Jacob Zuma, simply put, will be a horrible president for South Africa. Kurlantzick admits as much. Nevermind his grave personal failings (for instance, how can a man who claimed that he was safe from HIV infection after having unprotected intercourse with a positive woman because he showered afterwards govern a country with such a massive AIDS problem?), Zuma represents the populist wing of the ANC. This faction of the party, by far its largest, has never much cared for liberal democracy, (bred as it was on revolutionary Marxism), which explains why Zuma's demagogic appeals have proven successful and why he has gained steadfast support of the country's labor unions and Communist Party. Having witnessed Zuma in action (I even got to see him sing his signature hit, "Bring Me My Machine Gun"), I can attest to the man's charismatic pull. But Zuma threatens the one area of success that President Thabo Mbeki has realized: managing a successful capitalist economy. In the election of Jacob Zuma, it's reassuring to see the levers of democracy working. But many South Africans -- loyal ANC members among them -- worry about how long they'll work after he becomes president. 

--James Kirchick