In a rundown squatter camp just outside Pretoria, Casandra Nell, an Afrikaner, is in no doubt who she wants to be South Africa’s next President. “Zuma, Zuma, Zuma,” she repeats with a toothless grin accompanied by a little jig.
It is a remarkable testimony to the political charm of Jacob Zuma, who will be inaugurated today as the fourth black President of South Africa, that even the country’s growing band of poor whites–the greatest losers since the end of apartheid–pin their hopes of a better life on a Zulu goatherd turned liberation struggle commander, whose election rally song, Umshini Wam, translates as “Bring me my machinegun”.
“He came here to see us and promised water and electricity. He will come back when he is President, I am sure. If not, I will go to his office and see him. He said I can come and visit anytime,” Ms Nell said.
Mr Zuma was shocked at the poverty that he saw when he visited the camp a few months ago. Most black leaders deny the existence of real poverty among poorly educated, unskilled whites who used to get menial jobs simply because of their colour.
Esther Bloem, who lives in a nearby wooden shed, admitted that she was another convert. “Zuma is a good listener. He said he did not know there were poor white people in this country. He was shocked but he wants a place for all of us in South Africa. I wanted to vote for him but there was no transport,” she said.
As she spoke, military jets flew overhead–practising for today’s multimillion-pound inauguration ceremony, which is set to be attended by at least 30 heads of state and lowerranking delegations from Africa and the rest of the world. Britain will be represented by Lord Malloch-Brown, the Minister for Africa.
Activists are angered that President Mugabe of Zimbabwe will attend but hopeful that Mr Zuma, who is supported by the strong unionist movement, will take a much tougher line on the crisis in that country than his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki.
The Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, is keeping away after he was told that South Africa would serve the arrest warrant of the International Criminal Court issued for his alleged role in atrocities and genocide in Darfur. North Korea, which is again accused of nuclear ambitions, will be represented by its No 2 official, Kim Yong Nam.
The swearing-in at the imposing Afrikaner-built Union Buildings, where Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black President in 1994, will be followed by a sumptuous meal at which caviar and champagne will be served and a showbiz-style party at which the country’s many leading musicians will play.
Mr Zuma, 67, has a lot to celebrate. His political obituary was written when he was dismissed as the Deputy President by his arch-rival at the time, President Mbeki, in 2005 after alleged links to an arms bribery scandal. He was later acquitted in a rape trial but widely derided for knowingly having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman and saying he took a shower afterwards to prevent infection.
The self-educated Mr Zuma, a consummate politician, fought back and two years later toppled the aloof, Shakespeare-quoting Mr Mbeki from the presidency of the African National Congress (ANC). His supporters then ousted Mr Mbeki from the presidency at the end of last year and replaced him with a caretaker leader.
Many blacks have seen little improvement in their lives since the end of apartheid 15 years ago and are deeply resentful of a flashy black middle class that emerged in the Mbeki era.
Mr Zuma, who served ten years on Robben Island alongside Mr Mandela before going into exile to lead the ANC’s armed wing, steered the party to a landslide victory in elections last month. His charm offensive towards poor whites, most of whom opposed the end of apartheid, demonstrates his skill as a populist politician. There is virtually no minority group that he has not courted and won over.
He may now find that easy compared with trying to meet the expectations he has raised. Valentine Allen, surrounded by stray dogs and dozing pigs, who lost his job as a security guard because of affirmative action policies, said he voted ANC for the first time, such was his belief in Mr Zuma. “I know he will help us,” he said.