In Jacob Zuma, the Republic of South Africa has chosen a new President who is not only liked by his people, but someone seen by his countrymen as one of them. Like many Zulu folk, Zuma is very traditional and his people revere him. They see in Zuma someone not cut from the cloth of political royalty as were Mandela or Mbeki.
In the West however, I sense that Zuma's popularity has not won him many such admirers. Zuma has made many unflattering headlines in the months before his election as President. The media have chosen to ignore his continuously rising popularity, and instead have highlighted many of his perceived 'shortcomings'. It was no surprise that days before his inauguration, headlines in Western media ask "Who Will Be South Africa's Next First Lady?", in reference to the fact that Zuma is a polygamist.
Yes, Jacob Zuma is a complicated character, one with many well publicized problems. But to his credit, he has had to navigate routes strewn with allegations of corruption, rape and arms dealing to get to the South African Presidency. There is little doubt that his troubles will go away because of his new status. As a matter of fact, the challenge for Zuma will be to quickly make a mark for himself and address South Africa's many serious ills. Issues like the silent apathy to HIV/AIDS, poverty, corruption, an unbalanced economy, and renewed signs of xenophobia among the populace will be on Zuma's plate every day of his Presidency.
For many, especially in the West, Zuma is not the ideal 21st century African President his country deserves. They see him as too proud of his traditionalist views. The West would prefer an Mbeki-ish figure; more educated and way less pragmatic. The problem is that regular South Africans and indeed most Africans never really trust leaders who fit this mold; leaders who they perceive as pandering to the West. In the coming months, many will watch will keen interest Zuma's role in Zimbabwe and in curbing the rising Xenophobic tendencies in South Africa.
It does not seem to matter much that Zuma had been Vice President to Thabo Mbeki, his supporters see him as very different in style and priorities and have faith in his ability to lead Africa's largest economy. Zuma will no doubt use his well-oiled political machinery and an entrenched grassroots support to get most of his agenda passed.
Traditionalist or not, Zuma has to rise to the level of a Statesman to lead effectively. There can be only one Mandela, however Zuma can succeed if and only if he puts the whole country first. Like Madiba, he will have to perform a delicate balancing act with his utterances and actions. He will not be President of just the Zulu people, but of the whole Rainbow Nation, he will no longer be the persecuted one, but the decider of South Africa's future. The big question is, will Zuma succeed? So far he has proved he has the political chutzpah to do just that.