On Saturday, Jacob Zuma was sworn in as the third president of post-apartheid South Africa, following the legendary Nelson Mandela and the bookish Thabo Mbeki.

South Africa, with a population of about 50 million people, is Africa’s economic and industrial powerhouse. Its future will have a decisive effect on the stability and welfare of the entire continent.

In the past two decades, South Africa achieved a miracle: It passed bloodlessly from a regime of institutional racism to a noisy, multicultural and exemplary democracy.

The nation has shown great progress since the first free elections of 1994, but major problems remain unsolved: inequality among rich and poor (not necessarily always on the white/black axis), violent crime and 5 million people infected with HIV.

Zuma has now been called upon to solve these problems at a time when the global economic crisis is rocking South Africa – reducing demand for its industrial products as well as its gold, platinum and other resources. The new president’s character, however, is another cause of concern, as he is as different as one can be from Mandela and Mbeki.

His predecessors were men of learning and persuasiveness, who managed to combine their anti-apartheid struggle with a decidedly Western image: Mandela, a member of the Xhosa aristocracy, was a lawyer before his 27-year imprisonment, during which time he continued to read and learn. Pipe-smoking Mbeki has a Master’s degree in economics from the University of Sussex.

Zuma is a self-educated, polygamous former cowherd and firebrand trade unionist who stokes up crowds with his trademark guerrilla song: “Bring me my machine gun.” He won the presidency after a long struggle against corruption and rape charges, for which he has been cleared.

So it is natural that many in South Africa and abroad should worry that after the “gentlemen” Mandela and Mbeki, the populist Zuma could destabilize the economy and upset the delicate racial balance in the country. The recent troubles in which poor black South Africans carried out a pogrom against even poorer Zimbabwean immigrants (accusing them of taking their jobs), showed how fragile the situation is and how little patience remains for a more just distribution of national wealth.

And this is precisely where one might hope that Zuma’s election could be cause for optimism: Only someone like Zuma, who appears to be closer to the people than to the governing elite, could carry on with the prudent, conservative economic policy that Mandela and Mbeki followed without provoking a revolution. Because the ruling African National Congress has not lived up to expectations of solving all the country’s problems, it has to appear to change itself radically in order to remain in power.

In Zuma’s case, we might say that we have proof of Heraclitus’ view that “character is destiny.” If Zuma were not so popular nor so determined to pursue power, he would not have endured the war declared on him by the establishment under Mbeki in the past few years. He not only won, but there is even the possibility that, because of this character, he may be just the person his country needs in order to secure a peaceful continuation. Time will tell.

If we look at the character of a number of leaders with regard to their career and the course of their country, we may find reasons both for hope and for despair. For example, Barack Obama, with his seriousness, patience, academic achievements and desire for consensus, may be just the person the United States need to lead them out of economic crisis and two wars. In Russia, the low-key Dmitry Medvedev and strongman Vladimir Putin appear to be finding a balance with each other; at the same time, they are keeping a tight hold on the reins of power, while gradually developing their country and its institutions. In Britain, Gordon Brown, on a burning deck, is trying doggedly to steer through the economic storm that his government did not see coming.

If we turn to Greece and look at the people who are in power or in pursuit of it, then we see why we are in so much trouble. It appears that here it is not leaders’ characters that are their destiny but their name. And a name – whether it be Karamanlis or Papandreou – means very little if it is not accompanied by the character of a leader.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 11 May, 2009

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