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Book Details South Africa From Mandela To Zuma

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

South Africans go to the polls tomorrow, but it is no mystery who the next president will be. Jacob Zuma, the charismatic leader of the African National Congress or ANC, will almost certainly be elected. Zuma will be a type of president South Africans have not seen before. He's a populist, strongly identified with his Zulu tribe who boasts a campaign song called "Bring Me My Machine Gun."

That's also the title of a new political history of South Africa by journalist Alec Russell. Russell begins the book with the historic presidential election of 15 years ago, which ushered into power, a man imprisoned for nearly three decades under apartheid, Nelson Mandela.

Mr. ALEC RUSSELL (Author): There was this magical, magical moment when millions of people cued under a diamond bright sky for hour after hour to cast their first vote and the whole world was just astounded to see this graceful, elderly man, Nelson Mandela, lead his country into the future and say the past is the past and now is a new beginning.

MONTAGNE: Well, into the presidency steps Thabo Mbeki, the successor to Nelson Mandela, who is the scion of political royalty, probably best known here in America for questioning that HIV causing AIDs, and defending Zimbabwe's leader Robert Mugabe as he drove his country into the ground.

Mr. RUSSELL: Tragically, they are the two things he will be remembered for. They will be on his political tombstone. I mean in Mbeki's defense, briefly, he was a good manager of the economy, and that was terrifically important because so many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, after obtaining independence, saw their economies implode under poor management. But I fear that that is lost now. I mean I think rightly lost, against the legacy of his record on AIDs in particular. I mean AIDS was just disastrous.

MONTAGNE: Which brings us to the man who is now expected to be the next president, Jacob Zuma. Pretty much the opposite in every way of Mbeki?

Mr. RUSSELL: He is a true son of the soil, Jacob, to me. He spent much of his childhood just herding livestock, receiving no education at all, drifted into townships, and still in his teens, uneducated, but he got involved in the movement and became a stalwart of the ANC - actually was educated on Robben Island in his 20s, the prison just off the coast at Cape Town where Mandela had spent so many years.

Zuma spent more than ten years - before he went into exile. And it's there, in exile, that he first came together with Thabo Mbeki and they were the sort yin and yang of the exile movement in a way. They've got Mbeki this professorial dapper man who favored gray suits and dressed almost like a sort of English gentlemen, and Zuma who's a much more rough-hewn character who you'd expect to sort of meet round the bar late at night.

MONTAGNE: And Zuma can really go to the villages and be right there with the people?

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, at least it's one of these great strengths. He can communicate with the large numbers of poor, black South Africans and make them feel that he is one of them, because he is one of them. So when he goes to his home village now in rural Zululand and puts on leopard skins and sits back with a vat of buffalo milk or something, this isn't some political artifice - that is him. And I think that's a very, very useful political asset.

MONTAGNE: So the title of the book, tell us about that: "Bring Me My Machine Gun."

Mr. RUSSELL: "Bring Me My Machine Gun," or as it is in Zulu, Umshini Wami, is the title of one of the legendry anti-apartheid anthems. Zuma brought it back and he sings it at every rally he attends and he sings it with great gusto and indeed with great beauty. He's got a fabulous signing voice. And he uses it as part of his appeal. But of course, you need to do more to lead South Africa than just to feel at home in a rural village.

MONTAGNE: Right. I mean there are some real concerns and some people who are a bit aghast, but a lot of people are also fascinated with him. I mean the lack of a formal education has gotten people worried, as does Zuma's history and associations that involve corruption.

Mr. RUSSELL: I think the lack of a formal education - I've asked him about this a number of times and he quite understandably, legitimately says, look, the fact that I, Jacob Zuma, haven't had a brilliant education doesn't matter as long as I chose the right advisors and make the right decisions.

What I'd be slightly more concerned about, having observed his career, is his judgment. And you mentioned the corruption, well, that's far and away the biggest cloud of all. He, himself, has recently had charges against him dropped. There were 17 of them, they included money laundering, racketeering, fraud - I mean, a lengthy list. And it does seem there was an element of politicization in the prosecution. Nonetheless, he's never had the chance to clear himself in court, so that the cloud remains.

MONTAGNE: And also, something of a cloud, he was acquitted of charges that he raped a young woman who was HIV positive.

Mr. RUSSELL: This case was two or three years ago and he never denied that he had sexual relations with a young woman who was staying the night in his house, who was the daughter of an old family friend, and he - she was HIV positive and he knew it and they had unprotected sex. Well, in a country with an appalling HIV AIDs rate, that's hardly a clever signal to send. So that was point number one.

And point number two, in his trial, he referred to how in Zulu custom, because she was wearing a short skirt, it was seen as an invitation for him to make his advances on her. Well, he was acquitted, but these comments will return to haunt him.

MONTAGNE: Much has been made in the gossip columns about Jacob Zuma's several wives, which is not usual for political leaders in South Africa, but he's -that's a Zulu custom.

Mr. RUSSELL: You're completely right. It has caused endless comment in South Africa's papers. He's pretty exasperated in regards - as a sort of a snooty response of cosmopolitan city dwellers. He is an unashamed polygamist. He has, at the moment, simultaneously, at least three, if not four wives, and more than 20 children.

MONTAGNE: Hmm. And of course, not necessarily relevant to how much - what kind of leader he'll be, but… So what kind of president do you think he would be?

Mr. RUSSELL: Look, there is a chance, Zuma will be just what South Africa needs. He says he'll stand for one term and he says that he will focus on health, education, and crime.

So if Zuma does these things, if he does confront Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, if he does bring down violent crime, and if he does tackle education and health -then hurray, this is just what South Africa needs. So, I suppose to be fair on him, I have to say, well, now's the time to deliver.

You've had a controversial past, but you say these are the things you want to do. Well, do them, and in a few years time, everyone will be saying what a great president. But will he? We'll see.

MONTAGNE: Alec Russell is the author of "Bring Me My Machine Gun: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa from Mandela to Zuma." This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.