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New S. African Leader Emerges Amid Corruption Controversy

December 20, 2007 at 6:45 PM EST
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South Africa's top prosecutor said that he plans to bring corruption charges against Jacob Zuma, the newly elected leader of the African National Congress. A reporter looks at the man likely to become South Africa's next president.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a new leader emerges in South Africa. Ray Suarez has our coverage.

RAY SUAREZ: Just two days ago, Jacob Zuma was elected president of the African National Congress and gained a clear path to the South African presidency.

Today, Zuma was told he could face criminal charges in the new year, stemming from his time as deputy to South African President Thabo Mbeki.

Zuma and Mbeki were once friends and allies, but they had a very public falling out in the last two years. Mbeki fired Zuma as deputy president in 2005 after Zuma’s financial adviser was convicted of soliciting bribes on Zuma’s behalf.

Then, Zuma unseated Mbeki in a rout at this week’s ANC Party Congress, which was the most bitterly divisive gathering in the party’s history.

JACOB ZUMA, President, African National Congress: There is no reason for uncertainty or fear in any quarter.

RAY SUAREZ: And in a speech to the congress today, Zuma struck a conciliatory tone.

JACOB ZUMA: We have taken various resolutions at this conference which will guide us on our way forward.

RAY SUAREZ: But if criminal charges are filed against Zuma, he would have to give up his newly won party post. South Africa’s top prosecutor said today there is sufficient evidence to charge the 65-year-old Zuma with corruption and tax evasion from bribes tied to a multibillion-dollar arms deal. The prosecutor said a final decision would come soon.

Zuma, close to the pinnacle of power in a country of some 48 million people, says the charges are politically motivated.

Zuma's rise to power

Charlayne Hunter-Gault
National Public Radio
[W]hile President Mbeki was running around the world solving problems, ... Zuma had a lot of time on his hands, so he was visiting areas, ranches around the country, and generating support for himself.

RAY SUAREZ: For more, we go to Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who covered the ANC meeting this week. She's now a correspondent for National Public Radio.

Charlayne, welcome. Who is Jacob Zuma? And how did he rise to one of the top positions of power in South Africa?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, NewsHour Special Correspondent: Hi, Ray. Jacob Zuma is, of course, the new president of the African National Congress. He has been a politician for all of his life.

He was born in a very poor, rural area of KwaZulu-Natal. His father died when he was young. He went to work to help his mother make ends meet. She became a domestic after the death of his father, so he's a self-made man.

He has no formal schooling, but he's a consummate politician. I mean, everybody thought Jacob Zuma was dead -- I mean, you know, politically -- after he was fired by President Mbeki.

But as many people as the conference said over the last few days, while President Mbeki was running around the world solving problems, especially in Africa and being an ambassador for the country, Zuma had a lot of time on his hands, so he was visiting areas, ranches around the country, and generating support for himself.

So, if anything, this rise, phoenix-like, from dead political obscurity is a testament to the kind of politician he is.

New evidence on corruption charges

Charlayne Hunter-Gault
National Public Radio
Initially, the bribe was supposed to be something like $1 million. I'm told that it's over $4 million now. But, of course, none of -- this has been filed with the court in order to reopen the case.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, right after this latest triumph comes news that he may be on trial again?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, that's a real possibility. Just before he was to deliver his speech to the meeting today, one of the radio stations here broadcast that the National Prosecuting Authority now has enough evidence to prosecute him.

You mentioned in the set-up that he was about to be charged in connection with bribery and his business adviser, Schabir Shaik, who is now serving 15 years in prison for that bribe. And it turns out that they didn't have enough evidence -- or at least that's what they said -- they didn't have enough evidence to make the case initially, so those charges were dropped.

But now, I'm told, they have more evidence that not only relates to the bribe and the arms deal, but also to tax evasion, racketeering, and a few other things.

Initially, the bribe was supposed to be something like $1 million. I'm told that it's over $4 million now. But, of course, none of -- this has been filed with the court in order to reopen the case. This was an affidavit from the National Prosecuting Authority.

So apparently they feel, at this point, that they have sufficient grounds to go ahead. Of course, any prosecution now is going to look very politically motivated.

And while Zuma today, in his speech to the Congress, as you heard, talked about unity and talked about what a good friend and comrade Thabo Mbeki was and how they're going to be able to work together, there is some speculation that, if this indictment does come down, there's sufficient majority of the ANC, African National Congress, parliamentarians to call an early election and possibly force Mbeki to step down.

But, of course, all of this right now is in the realm of speculation.

Comparing Zuma and Mbeki

Charlayne Hunter-Gault
National Public Radio
But if you were at that conference, you could see that, while there may have been many reasons why the delegations repudiated Mbeki, they were totally enthusiastic about Jacob Zuma.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, to win the party presidency, Jacob Zuma had to beat a sitting president, a man who had worked hard to keep white capital and industry from leaving the country and the white population itself. He has presided over the growth of a new African middle class. Does this vote represent a repudiation of Thabo Mbeki's time as president?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, I think what it represents are a couple of things. One is perhaps a repudiation of Thabo Mbeki's style, which many have described as imperious, isolated, that he takes decisions more or less to himself. I mean, these are the charges, that he doesn't consult.

So there were many who felt that this was more an anti-Mbeki vote than it was a pro-Zuma vote. But if you were at that conference, you could see that, while there may have been many reasons why the delegations repudiated Mbeki, they were totally enthusiastic about Jacob Zuma.

I mean, they sang his theme song, "Awuleth Umshini Wami," "Bring Me My Machine Gun," the same song that he sang today at the conclusion of his message.

And that's the real difference between -- one of the differences between Mbeki and Zuma. Mbeki would not have stood up there and sang any kind of song. He would have quoted Yeats or Shakespeare in his address, but Zuma didn't do any of that. He's not an intellectual in that sense.

But he did engage the crowd, as he sang and danced and pranced around the stage singing "Awuleth Umshini Wami," "Bring Me My Machine Gun."

Political and economic policy

Charlayne Hunter-Gault
National Public Radio
[O]ne thing that we're going to have to watch -- and that is that his big support comes from people on the left.

RAY SUAREZ: In the little time we have left, maybe you could tell us whether -- if Jacob Zuma does rise to the presidency -- he'll take South Africa in a different direction politically and economically?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, that's not what he or his deputy president, who was the secretary general of the African National Congress, have said. There have been slightly confusing things being said, but the new deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, said yesterday that the ANC was not going to micromanage the government from Luthuli House, which is here in Johannesburg. The government would be in Pretoria.

And the same thing has been said by Zuma, including when he went around the world, the United States and United Kingdom, reassuring business that the microeconomic policy that the country is pursuing would stay on track.

But one thing that we're going to have to watch -- and that is that his big support comes from people on the left. It comes from the ANC Youth League. It comes from the congress of trade unions, COSATU. It comes from the Communist Party.

And the Communist Party leaders said yesterday or today -- I'm losing track of time at this point -- that there wasn't going to be an economic u-turn but a steady progression, which could mean, you know, more of a movement to the left. It just remains to be seen.

But, clearly, Jacob Zuma is going to owe something to those people I've just mentioned who helped him to defeat Thabo Mbeki.

RAY SUAREZ: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, thanks for joining us.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You're welcome, Ray.