Jacob Zuma, the man destined to become South Africa's president after his African National Congress party swept national elections this week, is a polygamist, a former communist revolutionary with little formal education, an alleged taker of lavish bribes and a man so stunningly clueless about his nation's No. 1 public health threat that he once declared his belief that he could fend off HIV by showering after sex. Needless to say, he makes many foreign observers very nervous.
Zuma is in many ways a contradiction and an enigma, but then, from an American point of view, so is his country. South Africa is a beacon of democracy and economic strength on a continent sadly lacking in either. Its comparatively peaceful transition from white minority rule to free elections, and the remarkable truth-and-reconciliation process it pioneered, set an example for the rest of the world. And yet it has consistently tried to block United Nations sanctions against such human rights abusers as Sudan and Myanmar. Johannesburg's failure to exert its considerable regional influence over Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe allowed him to turn his country from a breadbasket into a nearly failed state. And although South Africa's economy grew steadily after the end of apartheid, it still has among the widest disparities in wealth in the world, along with a soaring murder rate and a raging AIDS epidemic.
Will Zuma solve any of those problems or make South Africa a more responsible player on the world stage? Who knows? The freedom fighter who spent years in prison with national hero Nelson Mandela is a political cipher. Asked his position on key issues, he replies that they are the same as his party's. A leftist who promises to improve the lot of the poor, he nonetheless assures the rich that he won't raise their taxes in an attempt to redistribute wealth. He has been critical of his predecessor's coddling of Mugabe yet sees Western attempts to intervene as colonialist meddling.
Because of South Africa's international influence -- it's the only African country among the Group of 20, the coalition of leading industrialized and developing nations -- it's easy to forget that its democracy is only 15 years old. The African National Congress' leaders are for the most part former revolutionaries trying to make the transition to statesmen, a career that requires very different skills. About the best thing that can be said about Zuma's ascendance is that if he fails as spectacularly as many outsiders expect, it could pave the way for a more robust opposition and an end to one-party rule in a country where new ideas are badly needed.