Zuma Rising

The anxiety over Jacob Zuma’s election as president of South Africa obscures a significant milestone: for the first time in decades, a sub-Saharan nation has at its helm a champion of ordinary people.

African politics has long been the exclusive domain of aristocrats, soldiers, and technocrats. Even with the spread of democratic elections, the region’s leaders tend to come from the ranks of soldiers (Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe), family dynasties (Togo, Kenya, etc), or university professors, lawyers, and economists (Ghana, Malawi, Liberia). Now South Africa, the region’s economic engine and home to its most sophisticated universities, media, and corporations, has a former goat herder at its helm, a rare African leader with the common touch.

Zuma is legendary for his ability to connect with ordinary people. He’s secure enough to dance and sing in public. He speaks the language of populism, raising hopes for the vast majority of South Africans who daily endure the misery of poor housing, schools, and health care.

In contrast to his two predecessors – the saintly Nelson Mandela, who emphasized racial healing, and the aristocratic Thabo Mbeki, who reassured financiers with his strong grasp of macroeconomics – Zuma recognizes the pent-up demand for material improvement in the lives of his country’s tens of millions of have-nots. “We have learned from the mistakes of the past 15 years, especially the manner of which we may have, to some degree, neglected the people’s movement,” he said in April, before his African National Congress swept to victory.