US embassy cables: Profile of Jacob Zuma – ‘a controversial but not well understood personage’
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 8 December 2010 21.30 GMT
Friday, 08 May 2009, 15:04
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 PRETORIA 000939
SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED
EO 12958 N/A
TAGS KDEM, PGOV, PREL, SF
SUBJECT: PART 1 OF 3: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SOUTH AFRICA’S
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1. (SBU) Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, President of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, is a controversial but not well understood personage who emerged from obscurity to where he now occupies the apex of South Africa’s political pyramid. He is deeply loved and revered by his closest constituencies; he is mistrusted by opposition parties; and is hated by those here who believe he is “wrong for South Africa.” Zuma’s nearly five decades of involvement with the ANC, has brought him to this moment. Zuma is now poised to become the fourth post-apartheid President of South Africa, following Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, and Kgalema Motlanthe.
2. (SBU) The National and Provincial elections held on April 22, 2009 resulted in the ANC winning its fourth consecutive governing majority (65.9%). Under the South African constitution, the Parliament elects the state president; thus the ANC majority in Parliament elected Jacob Zuma to be inaugurated in Pretoria on May 9, 2009. This message weaves together various sources to provide a comprehensive look at the life and times of Jacob Zuma. Our goal is to dispel the caricatures that dominate the media and present a more realistic picture of the man who will soon lead the most dynamic emerging democracy in Africa. This is the first in a series of three related cables. End Summary.
The Boyhood Years
3. (SBU) Zuma was born on April 12, 1942 in the rural village of Inkandla in the heart of Zululand (now, Kwa-Zulu Natal). One hundred or so years before Zuma’s birth, the Zulu War leader Shaka led a bloody expansion of the Zulu kingdom against other African tribes, and fifty or so years before, the last Zulu War was won by the British Empire. Two centuries of colonial incursions into the heart of South Africa and the advent of the Afrikaner Boers into central and eastern territories reduced the Zulus to dependency status in a racist system that placed all blacks at the bottom of a segregated system of governance. Jacob Zuma was born the first-born son of the second wife of a provincial policeman and had two full brothers and two full sisters. The first wife of his father had three boys and four girls. His father, whom he says he never saw, died while Zuma was very young.
4. (SBU) The death of his father left his mother destitute and displaced her from her home in Inkandla. She returned to her own village of Maphumulo where she worked for low pay as a domestic. As the war ended, she relocated to a Durban township and worked as a domestic to feed her children. Zuma’s childhood was spent between Durban and the rural interior of Zululand. In 1947, the National Party won the election and instituted apartheid and racial categories as the policy of the state. The Group Areas Act, pass laws, Bantustans, separate facilities and amenities were in place. The racial segregation of the colonial period became the law, and the authoritarian police state was prepared to enforce wit with violence. In reaction, the violent, chaotic relations between the state and the oppressed Africans led to an atmosphere of periodic bloody riots, political suppression, torture, murder, strikes, townships in flames, Qsuppression, torture, murder, strikes, townships in flames, and widespread suffering.
5. (SBU) Zuma was forced to work odd jobs from a young age to supplement his mother’s meager income — as a herd boy, a gardener, a domestic, in tea houses, and small shops. He faced the same problems of life of all Africans in the apartheid state. In the rural, pastoralist cattle culture of the Zulu, Zuma’s first job as a herd boy linked him to an ancient traditional occupation of African boys throughout the continent. He once wrote, “I used to look after them (the cows) very well. That was the first time I was praised for a job well done.”
6. (SBU) Not unusual for the times, as an unregistered African, Zuma only achieved schooling to Form III, or Fifth
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Grade equivalent. However, friends and relatives recognized his hunger for learning and helped him with what they had learned. He claims to be self-taught and that he taught himself to read and write. In his teens, in 1955, a cousin encouraged him to attend night school in Durban. In this era, African churches, trade unions, and civic organizations offered educational opportunities to their members that were otherwise lacking from the state. Throughout South Africa and beyond, Zuma’s life exemplified the distinction between education and intelligence — the former he lacked, the latter he had in abundance. In 1985, in a biography penned for the Communist Party, he said he was self-educated up to the Junior Certificate level. Later in his life he said, “Education is education whether it is formal or not.” He continued, “I have done everything that the educated have done.”
To Political Consciousness
7. (SBU) The ANC was established in 1912 as one of several civil agencies seeking to end racism and segregation and to protecting the human and civil rights of the African majority. By mid-century, it had attracted the support of African intellectuals and traditional leaders as well as the average neglected African who was denied the rights of citizenship in the land of their birth. Zuma’s elder half brother from his father’s first wife was a secret member of the ANC. A maternal uncle was a trade union activist. They talked to him about the struggle for equality and freedom, setting the spark for his developing political consciousness.
8. (SBU) Zuma actively took to politics, resistance, and activism as a young man of 17 years. He attended public and underground meetings where the goals of groups like the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) were discussed. In 1958, he hovered around the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) — an organ made famous a decade earlier by the young revolutionary Nelson Mandela — and in 1958, Zuma joined the ANC and its Youth League. He said he was not an active participant, but he attended meetings and rallies. In 1959, he joined the South African Council of Trade Unions (SACTU) with his brother and soon was involved in an anti-pass campaign in the Noxamana district as well as in demonstrations opposing the Bantustan policy. In these activities, he found a fraternity among like-minded groups that defined his life’s work.
9. (SBU) In 1961, the year Nelson Mandela was arrested and jailed, Zuma was 19 years old and committed to fighting apartheid. That year, in Durban, he began courses with SACTU on Marxism-Leninism, the labor theory of value, and political discussions about colonialism, imperialism, the anti-colonial movement, and the nature of the struggle inside South Africa. While a member of a political study group in 1962, the year Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, Zuma was recruited into the militant armed wing of the ANC — Umkonto wa Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation, aka “MK”). The following year, he was recruited into the SACP, though in his words, he did “little party work.” It was Zuma’s associations with these organizations at this critical tipping point in South Africa’s history that became the guiding commitment of his QAfrica’s history that became the guiding commitment of his life up until today.
Life in the Struggle
10. (SBU) As an underground member of the banned ANC and the SACP, young Jacob Zuma was urged to go into exile, gain military training, and join the fight against apartheid. In June 1963, the 21 year old Zuma was arrested with 45 other young comrades in Zeerust, in the Transvaal (now North West Province), as they were walking to Botswana into self-imposed exile. He was detained for ninety days, then tried and sentenced to ten years in prison for “conspiracy to overthrow the government.” Zuma spent the next ten years incarcerated with many other political prisoners, including the senior ANC leadership in prison such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, among other political prisoners at the infamous Robben Island. While in Robben Island, in what had become
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the ANC’s graduate school, they discussed the U.S. civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the African independence movement, and the global ideological contest of the Cold War.
11. (SBU) Zuma rarely discusses this period of his life in public, nor did his biography speak frankly about that experience, his relationships, and what he learned. He does say that many important people there engaged in serious political debates and disagreements, but he failed to say who they were or what they argued about. The only insight he provided says he held many responsible positions within ANC structures at Robben Island, he was a mentor for students, and at the end was Chairman of the Political Committee. In the culture of the revolutionary anti-apartheid movements, his presence at Robben Island during Mandela’s first decade there is the best possible “struggle credential” he could possibly have acquired to rise in the movement. Released from prison at the age of 32 in 1974, Zuma immediately re-engaged the struggle with the ANC Natal underground.
End of Part One