x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Zuma sworn in as South Africa's leader

The president faces a challenge to deliver on campaign promises of material change as citizens celebrate the smooth transfer of power.

Jacob Zuma is sworn in by Pius Langa, left, the chief justice, as the former president Thabo Mbeki and his wife Zanele look on, in Pretoria.
Jacob Zuma is sworn in by Pius Langa, left, the chief justice, as the former president Thabo Mbeki and his wife Zanele look on, in Pretoria.

PRETORIA // In the hilly cradle that holds the South African capital Pretoria, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma yesterday took his place in history as the country's fourth president since the end of apartheid. The grand sweep of the Union Buildings, the head of state's offices high on a slope overlooking the city, is reminiscent of the Plaza de Espana in Seville, and from it the squat bulk of the Voortrekker Monument, built by the country's Afrikaner rulers before the advent of democracy, is visible on the horizon.

It is now 15 years since the fall of the racist system and the steps of the buildings are now adorned with an inscription: "We shall not rest until all pass laws and all forms of permits restricting our freedom have been abolished. "We shall not rest until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of freedom, justice and security." But while those battles have been won, Mr Zuma, 67, will have to fight new ones of his own to succeed, in addition to his long struggle to reach the swearing-in ceremony.

After taking the oath he told a 5,000-strong audience, who had chanted his named as he arrived, along with many thousands more watching on giant screens down the hillside: "We gather here determined that the struggles and sacrifices of our people over many decades shall not be in vain. "Instead, they shall inspire us to complete the task for which so much blood was shed and so much hardship endured. This is a moment of renewal."

Mr Zuma's path to the presidency has been convoluted and bitter. A former Robben Island inmate - as was Nelson Mandela - African National Congress exile and negotiator in the talks to end apartheid, he became the country's deputy president in 1999, but six years later was sacked after his financial adviser was convicted of seeking bribes for him. He and Thabo Mbeki, the country's then president, engaged in a titanic contest for power that dominated politics for almost a decade and eventually triggered a split in the once monolithic ANC.

Yesterday, though, an 18-strong squadron of helicopters in double diamond formation led a military fly-past, looking for all the world like something from Apocalypse Now, except that instead of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries the band for the first time played the national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, for Mr Zuma as head of state. "It's a wonderful day," said Bally Chuene, Nelson Mandela's lawyer, who was one of the first guests to arrive, before the sun was fully up. "It's a tremendous occasion for South Africa and it's a milestone from a number of perspectives."

Such a smooth change of administration is uncommon in Africa, he added, "and that's what we're celebrating. With some ANC members leaving the organisation for the first time the strength of the ANC was tested in this election, that's what makes it so unique." Finally formalising his victory, after the ANC won last month's general election with 65.9 per cent of the vote, Mr Zuma - who has three wives and 19 children - took a presidential tone, not singing his controversial theme song Umshini Wami (Bring Me My Machine Gun) and embracing Mr Mbeki when he took the stage.

He praised his rival as someone who "took the country forward as a true statesman" and "put the interests of the country above his personal interests". Unlike at campaign rallies, there were no caveats to his pledges to defend the freedom of the media, or the courts. "We must safeguard the independence and integrity of those institutions tasked with the defence of democracy, and that must act as a check on the abuse of power," he said.

It was impressive rhetoric, but as well as having to overcome his own controversies - he promised to serve with "dedication, commitment, discipline, integrity, hard work and passion - he will have to deliver on the campaign promises of material change for the millions of South Africans who remain deeply poor. "I think there's a special expectation on Mr Zuma," said Carl Niehaus, a former ANC spokesman who stepped down after becoming embroiled in financial controversies himself. "He understands this special expectation."

The new president will also have to deal with the continuing reverberations of his struggle with Mr Mbeki, which still hangs over the ANC. "I was asking myself as he was reading the oath, why did we have to go through all that we have gone through in order to arrive here?" said Blade Nzimande, the general secretary of the South African Communist Party and a close ally of his. "It has been rough and for some of us personally we have been accused of all sorts of things. We have gone through a turbulent period, we now need to put that behind us and tackle what are the priorities in the country."

The swearing-in had been "a big moment" for him, he said, but he described Mr Zuma as "someone who is very cool, calm and collected". "He doesn't easily get overly excited," he said. "As he is standing there he is acutely aware of the responsibility that rests on his shoulders as president of South Africa." sberger@thenational.ae