I first met Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s controversial president, in 2002 when he was serving as then-President Thabo Mbeki’s vice president. I was in South Africa at the behest of a number of South African outfitters and professional hunters to urge the government to reject a British-inspired laundry list of firearms regulations that would have crippled big-game hunting in South Africa. I was asked to see what I could do because I was known within the country as a pro-gun political activist and a personal friend of Zulu Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, then serving as the nation’s home minister.
It was an interesting trip. Mr. Buthelezi was head of the Inkatha Freedom Party, which dominated Zululand. He had been an opponent of apartheid, as well as the African National Congress‘ campaign of violence and the U.S. sanctions that he later claimed had “impoverished his people.” He was a South African patriot, a great friend of the United States and had been included in the ANC-controlled government because excluding him might enrage the Zulu, who looked to him as their champion and spokesman.
The Zulu, the most warlike tribe in the country, was on the minds of the ANC at the time. Mr. Buthelezi had been offered the vice presidency if he would support ANC candidates running in Zululand to give the ANC total control of all South Africa. Mr. Buthelezi refused, but did join the government as home minister, where he was constantly watched and where the ANC leadership no doubt believed they could keep him under control.
It had been illegal for blacks in South Africa to own firearms during the apartheid era. Even black police officers were restricted to spears, which put them at a distinct disadvantage when confronted by the armed wing of the ANC. As Mr. Buthelezi and I enjoyed dinner on my arrival, I told him that while I was no expert on the goings-on in South Africa, I had seen the 1964 classic British production of “Zulu” in which he played his grandfather, the leader of the Zulu in the 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift and had concluded “that a Zulu with a spear was more dangerous than a white man with a gun.” He said that was true enough, but that neither the British nor the ANC quite got it.
After 1994 when the first black government under Nelson Mandela came to power, blacks could own firearms, but the government later became alarmed by estimates that 80 or 90 percent of those buying guns were the very Zulu the ANC distrusted. It would, however, have been politically incorrect and perhaps dangerous to ban arms sales to the Zulu alone, so the government opted to adopt firearms restrictions as a cover to disarm the Zulu that would have not only crippled hunting, but left farmers and others defenseless against the gangs that roamed the country.
I sat down with Mr. Zuma, the enforcer for the ANC during the war against the earlier white government who was to be accused of rape when he later assumed the presidency. The man feared by most South Africans looked at me and said, “When will you white people realize that none of this is about you?” He made it clear that the whole plan was designed to disarm the Zulu and that it would go forward. Afterward, I observed to the fellow who accompanied me to the meeting that 30 seconds with Jacob Zuma was enough to convince anyone that they never would want to run into him in a dark alley.
In spite of it all, the ANC scheme collapsed as demonstrations broke out in the streets and the restrictions were pulled back “for further study.” As president, Mr. Zuma has not only discredited himself, threatened the hope engendered by the vision of the late Nelson Mandela, but has presided over a growing public mistrust of the ANC which is now, like Mr. Zuma himself, increasingly regarded as corrupt and incompetent. His party still holds power and will for some time. But last week it suffered the first major election defeats in its history and for the first time since municipal elections have been held received less than 60 percent of the vote, indicating that one-party rule in South Africa may be on its last legs.
The dwindling support didn’t seem to bother the president, who took delivery of the most expensive Boeing 747 ever produced. It is a flying palace that cost the South African people more than $400 million.
• David A. Keene is Opinion editor at The Washington Times.
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