The good news: "Zuma" is a non-judgmental and breezily written history of the power struggle that roiled the ANC in the mid-2000s. Even though the book stays focused on Zuma and his legal problems, it conveys a lot of smart information -- some of it new -- about South African politics. I liked it.
The bad news: "Zuma" is by NO stretch of the imagination a well-rounded biography of Jacob Zuma. Zuma had a long career in ANC politics before he took center stage in the legal soap opera that mesmerized South Africans a few years ago. He joined the ANC while still a teenager and spent 10 years on Robben Island in the 1960s. After his release, he rejoined the liberation struggle, did ANC work in Mozambique and Zambia, and eventually became the ANC's intelligence chief. He played an important role in the negotiations that led to the unbanning of the ANC in 1990 and later helped to end bloody fighting between the ANC and another black party in KwaZulu Natal. He served as a provincial cabinet minister in KZN after the democratic transition. He was Deputy President of South Africa from 1999 to 2005. Simply put, he was a major ANC player over a long period of time -- yet "Zuma" examines none of these chapters in his career in any depth. Similarly, Zuma's personal relationships, political allegiances, Zulu identity, and views on policy -- to the extent he has any -- are analyzed in only superficial terms.
But if "Zuma" flops as biography, it retells in gory journalistic detail the story of Zuma's fall from power in 2005 and his amazing comeback in 2009, when he was elected South Africa's President. Most of the action took place in courtrooms, beginning in 2003, when Zuma's key financial backer was indicted for bribing him. Zuma's proxies fought a vicious defensive action, slandering the country's top prosecutor as an apartheid-era spy (and triggering a high profile investigation). But when the case resulted in a conviction in 2005, Zuma resigned the Deputy Presidency and was soon thereafter indicted for corruption himself. Then the case was thrown out of court on a technicality. Then Zuma was prosecuted and acquited of rape. Then he was re-indicted for corruption. While the lawyers battled in court, Zuma fought back in the political arena, waging a campaign (backed by anti-Mbeki unions and the Communist Party) to wrest control of the ANC from Thabo Mbeki. This campaign reached a strange climax at the end of 2007, when Zuma became the ANC boss but Mbeki was left in control of the national government. In 2008 the corruption charges against Zuma were thrown out a second time when a judge found that the case had been manipulated for political purposes. It was now Mbeki's turn to resign from national office. Zuma's triumph seemed complete -- yet he was re-re-indicted for corruption only weeks later! And then, just a few weeks before national elections in 2009, prosecutors dropped the case for technical reasons -- for good! Zuma sailed into the Presidency.
It was a national roller coaster ride, with bombshells exploding daily in the press. South Africa got a tainted President, who has fathered at least one illegitimate child since entering office. However, the legal/constitutional system never broke down during the long melodrama, even though it was subjected to huge pressure. The country has moved on. South Africa's institutions are stronger than the men who manage (and try to manipulate) them.
Probably no one except a South African political junkie would want to read so many details about such complicated legal and political maneuvering. However, masochistic readers wanting to relive those crazy years, when it looked like the Mbeki and Zuma factions of the ANC might tear the party apart and carry down South Africa's constitutional system with it, will love "Zuma." But no one should turn to the book expecting a serious political biography.