CAPE TOWN, South Africa – South Africa’s parliament elected Jacob Zuma as president Wednesday, celebrating the astonishing rise of a self-educated teenage goatherder who transformed himself into the charismatic leader of Africa’s economic powerhouse.
Zuma will be inaugurated Saturday, the culmination of a remarkable comeback for the former underground leader who survived prison under the country’s former apartheid government, a rape allegation and corruption scandals on his way to the top job.
“I hope to lead the country on a path of friendship, co-operation, harmony, unity and faster change,” said Zuma, declaring himself overwhelmed and humbled by a thundering outbreak of applause that greeted his election.
Zuma, 67, is due to name his government Sunday – and world markets as well as ordinary people are eager to see whether he follows the pragmatic market-oriented path of his predecessors or reaches out to his powerful allies in the trade union and Communist movements with more pro-poor policies.
In his address to parliament, Zuma promised to speed up progress on education, health and land reform, fight harder against crime, create more jobs and improve the lives of millions of impoverished black South Africans who have seen little benefit since apartheid ended 15 years ago.
“We mean business when we talk about faster change,” Zuma said, adding that his immediate priority was to limit the fallout from the global economic crisis, which has pushed South African unemployment back up to 23.5 per cent.
He also promised that his government would be “more hands on, more accessible” than past ones.
Zuma’s long-dominant ANC party won elections last month with 65.9 per cent of the vote, giving it 264 seats in the 400 member National Assembly but with less than the two-thirds majority needed to enact major budgetary plans or legislation unchallenged, or change the constitution.
The white-dominated Democratic Alliance party has 67 seats, the Congress of the People or COPE – formed last year by disgruntled ANC members – has 30 seats and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party has 18, with smaller parties making up the balance.
COPE nominated its own leader Mvume Dandala for president, but Zuma easily defeated him by 277 votes to 47. The Democratic Alliance abstained.
Despite the ANC’s majority, it lost support in the elections to COPE and the Democratic Alliance because of unease about Zuma’s past. Just weeks before the April election, prosecutors dropped long-standing bribery and corruption charges against him because of misconduct by key investigators – although not because they were convinced of his innocence in a big arms scandal.
He was also acquitted of rape in 1996.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero, Nelson Mandela, said Zuma has proved he could triumph over all obstacles.
“He is a capable leader that epitomizes our continued and resilient struggle against the worst that humanity has to offer and the hope that we as a nation shall triumph against all odds because of the best that we collectively can offer,” she told parliament.
Opposition parties unsuccessfully challenged Madikizela-Mandela’s nomination to parliament because of her criminal convictions. In 1991, she was sentenced to six years in jail for her role in a kidnapping case. The sentence was reduced to a fine on appeal, but she was later convicted of fraud and theft charges.
Yet both Madikizela-Mandela and Zuma command huge loyalty among poor South Africans who felt alienated by the aloofness and intellect of former president Thabo Mbeki.
In a biography released ahead of the parliamentary session, the ANC emphasized Zuma’s humble origins in rural KwaZulu-Natal. He dropped out of school after the death of his father, studying at night and while herding goats. This experience inspired him to set up an education fund that has since helped educate 20,000 poor children, according to the ANC.
During apartheid, Zuma became active in the banned ANC, was arrested in 1963 and was sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island – the prison where Mandela served decades and which has now become one of South Africa’s top tourist attractions.
In 1975, Zuma went into exile and helped organize ANC resistance to South Africa’s white racist rule, returning home as apartheid crumbled.