South Africa in Need of Secular Leader

Jacob Zuma is trying to rally support for his re-election campaign to the presidency of the African National Congress (ANC) and, by extension, South Africa. He is not attending mass meetings or public debates, however. He his seeking spiritual support from his Zulu ancestors through a mixture of prayer and animal sacrifice.

Mr Zuma is a renowned Zulu traditionalist

This is not the first time that Zuma’s traditionalist Zulu beliefs have made him seem out-of-touch to contemporary South Africans. He is, after all, an avowed polygamist with twenty-one children. Now, with his future as ANC leader in doubt, he has decided to enhance the publicity of his Zulu practices rather than seeking to cover them up. This is surely a big mistake for a man deemed by many to be clueless, corrupt and unable to bring stability to this permanently-divided country.

Not that uniting South Africa’s most multicultural of populations is an easy or enviable task. The current miners’ strikes, reports of police brutality and political malingering are hardly new. Ever since Apartheid’s fall, the “new” South Africa of equality has foundered under the global expectations of hope and shared prosperity.

In a country with an almost unique history – in which an already varied tribal landscape was subjugated by two antagonistic white powers and where subsequently a racial minority ruled the majority of the population with an unbounded repression – the need for a leader able to cross racial, ethnic, cultural and religious boundaries is tantamount. South Africa is in need of a secular leader. By secular I refer not only to the need to avoid exclusively aligning oneself with a particular religion but also with a specific ethnic group (indeed it could be argued that ethnicity has taken on a quasi-religious importance in South Africa anyway). Jacob Zuma, whatever else you may think of him, does not fit this definition of secular.

This language map testifies to South Africa’s complex ethnic make-up

This is not to say that it is Zuma’s Zulu beliefs that make him inappropriate; it is the fact that his convictions are so strong that they alienate a large proportion of South Africans who do not share his ethnic or religious background. It would be similarly difficult for a devout Catholic or Hindu to rule South Africa, as it would be for a Xhosa traditionalist or a Boer nationalist. Ethnic and religious divides dominate South African society and only a strong ruler willing to forgo the sort of public favouritism Zuma revels in can hope to succeed.

Of course, we must not forget the multitude of other problems facing any prospective South African leader; internal party corruption, nepotism, cronyism and political stalemate to name a few. But first there is a desperate need for an individual capable of representing the “rainbow nation” that Nelson Mandela so famously envisaged.