South Africa's President Jacob Zuma addresses a media
briefing on arrangements relating to the passing of former
President Nelson Mandela, at SABC Studios in Auckland Park,
Johannesburg. Photo by Reuters
A week ago, South African President Jacob Zuma was a
leader on the back foot, ridiculed in a front-page cartoon by a
newspaper accusing him of blowing $US20 million of public money
on a security upgrade to his private home.
Seven days later, he has gained some political respite
through the death of anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, an
event of such enormity in the "Rainbow Nation" that Zuma's
troubles could be banished from headlines well into next
Seldom comfortable in set-piece events, Zuma delivered the
news of Mandela's passing late on Thursday (local time) with
rare gravitas - a very different figure from the cartoon
character depicted sipping a cocktail and floating in a pool
of cash in last week's Mail and Guardian newspaper.
The weekly dealt Zuma a serious blow with a report alleging
the security upgrade to his Nkandla home included a cattle
enclosure and swimming pool - referred to in state documents
as a "fire pool" on the grounds it could double up as a water
reservoir for fire-fighting purposes.
"It's been a very tough couple of weeks for Zuma, this week
in particular with all the fallout from Nkandla," said
William Gumede, a political analyst at Johannesburg's Wits
"But Mandela might offer him some kind of reprieve. At least
people's minds are off him for the time being."
The ANC has stood by Zuma over the Nkandla accusations,
saying it believed he had done no wrong. The president's
office has not commented.
"DAY IN HISTORY"
The 101-year-old African National Congress (ANC), which has
ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, is
also likely to make political hay out of Mandela's passing,
especially with an election less than six months away.
Although there is no chance of the former liberation movement
losing its overall majority in Africa's biggest economy, its
share of the vote has been waning since the advent of
democracy. In 2009 it won fewer than two thirds of votes for
the first time.
With so-called "Born Free" post-apartheid voters coming on to
the electoral roll for the first time in 2014, unencumbered
by the emotional ties of their parents to the liberation
struggle, analysts say that percentage could drop sharply.
However, Mandela's death and the 10-day funerary proceedings
that are set to follow are likely to serve as a reminder to
young South Africans of the huge sacrifices made by "Madiba",
as he is affectionately known, and his party.
Businessman Philip Sikhumbuzo, 35, reflected the feelings of
many when he woke his two small children in the middle of the
night and took them, still in their pyjamas, to Mandela's
Johannesburg home minutes after Zuma's announcement.
"It's late but this is one day in history and I want my
children to remember who Mandela was," the 35-year-old told
However, putting Mandela front and square in its election
campaign also carries risks for the ANC, not least because it
will merely highlight the yawning gulf in stature between
South Africa's first black president and its fourth.
Besides the Nkandla imbroglio, Zuma's five years in office
have been tainted by scandals and gaffes, from the fathering
of a love-child with the daughter of a close friend, to a
dismissive quip about the state of the roads in nearby
Before he came into office in 2009, the polygamous Zulu
traditionalist had a record that prompted Germany's Stern
magazine to refer to him as "The Black Berlusconi", a
comparison to the scandal-plagued Italian politician.
He was tried in 2006 for rape. Although he was acquitted, he
admitted he had failed to wear a condom despite knowing his
partner was HIV positive, and had taken a shower after sex to
minimise the risk of infection, raising serious questions
about his judgment.
Three years later, he escaped trial for corruption relating
to a multi-billion arms deal when state prosecutors withdrew
charges just days before the election.
Mandela, by contrast, was held up as a pillar of probity and
virtue, a man who, on trial for his life, stood up in the
dock in 1964 and declared he was prepared to die in his quest
for a democratic and free South Africa.
"The ANC mobilisation and public face will be very much
represented by Mandela for now, so it does allow the focus to
go off Jacob Zuma, and in the election the ANC will in effect
be fronting itself with Nelson Mandela," said independent
political analyst Nic Borain.
"It's an appropriate strategy given the kind of trouble the
president has been in, but there is a downside to that - that
the comparison between the two becomes impossible to ignore."