He would undermine judicial independence and curb press freedom. Graft and patronage, already rampant, would spread. Under President Zuma, South Africa’s democracy would erode. Africa’s biggest economy would go the way of others to the north.
In fact, after four months in office, Mr Zuma has been notably pragmatic. He has respected South Africa’s democratic institutions and made no apparent shift to the left. He has refused to dish out plum jobs only to loyalists. There has been no witch hunt of those who opposed his elevation. Indeed, he has given senior cabinet posts to several friends of Thabo Mbeki, Mr Zuma’s predecessor and bitter rival. The press, which had often been wary of Mr Zuma, seems enamoured by the way he has encouraged debate.
This week Mr Zuma passed a litmus test, in the doubters’ eyes, when John Hlophe, a much-criticised head of the Western Cape’s judiciary, was rejected as a candidate for the Constitutional Court. Many had feared that, as a well-known Zuma ally, he would not only win a seat on the court but might even end up as the country’s chief justice. But his name has been left off the shortlist of seven candidates, all respected judges, drawn up by the Judicial Services Commission. Mr Zuma will now pick four of them to fill seats that fall vacant next month when four of the court’s 11 justices retire.
Mr Zuma’s protracted tussles with the courts over charges of rape (of which he was acquitted) and corruption (the case was eventually dropped) led many to believe he would try to curb the powers of a judiciary he deemed hostile. Instead, he has gone out of his way to stress the need for judicial independence and the separation of powers. He has appeared to confirm this by choosing Sandile Ngcobo, a staunchly independent Constitutional Court judge, as the new chief justice.
Contrary to past practice, it seems that most public appointments, whether as the central bank’s governor or to the management board of state television, are being made on merit rather than politics. Lavish spending on such things as ministerial cars is being frowned on. The new government seems to be tackling corruption.
On the economic front, Mr Zuma has not ditched Mr Mbeki’s prudent market-friendly policies, as his left-wing allies have demanded, while Trevor Manuel, the previous finance minister who ran the show for the past 13 years, now heads a National Planning Commission that will oversee all ministries, especially those affecting the economy.
The Communists and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), who helped catapult Mr Zuma into the presidency, are appalled. Some of them have begun to wonder whether Mr Zuma is not presiding over a lurch to the right, despite his promises to tackle poverty and extend welfare.
The president has roundly condemned recent violence by striking workers and protesters, telling the police to fire tear-gas and rubber bullets at them. “Lawlessness and anarchy will not be tolerated from any segment of our society, regardless of the grievances,” he declared. Last month’s protests over pay by rioting soldiers were “despicable in the extreme”, he said. His government has sacked 1,300 of those involved and wants to ban soldiers from joining trade unions.
Before the election, Mr Zuma hinted he might bring back the death penalty, abolished in 1995. Though no more has been heard of that, the government has brought in a bill to make it easier for police to use lethal force against suspected criminals. Some say Mr Zuma may seek to review certain liberal rights in the constitution, such as abortion and gay marriage, never popular with ordinary South Africans, after a new group of conservative church leaders with close ties to the ruling African National Congress began lobbying him.
Mr Zuma’s foreign policy is less clear. Like Mr Mbeki, he wants to strengthen his country’s influence in Africa, while keeping warm relations with the West, particularly the United States. But he may be readier to criticise human-rights violators. At first he seemed to back the African Union’s rejection of the International Criminal Court’s war-crime charges against Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, but has since had him declared persona non grata in South Africa. On Zimbabwe, he sounds keener to see the back of Robert Mugabe, so far without success.
What differentiates Mr Zuma most obviously from Mr Mbeki is his copious charm, his readiness to listen, and his happy, relaxed manner. He has even won praise for the dignified way he has presented his three current wives (he has had at least five) to the public. Yet he occasionally refuses to drop some of the populist gestures that used to frighten liberals and whites. At this week’s Cosatu conference he could not resist leading a boisterous rendition of his controversial theme-song, “Umshini Wami” (Bring me my machine-gun). But hardly an eyebrow was raised. Mr Zuma is still on a roll.