Zuma, Nkosazana 1949–
Nkosazana Zuma 1949–
South African politician
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is “probably the most powerful woman in South African politics,” wrote Mail and Guardian, one of South Africa’s leading newspapers, in June of 1999 just after her appointment as Minister of Foreign Affairs. “Not only close to [South African President] Mbeki, she is also a determined fighter for change, willing to head-butt any vested interest, including the pharmaceutical and tobacco companies.” It is an astonishing statement considering her humble beginnings as the eldest child of a poor schoolteacher in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. Despite both the poverty and the institutionalized racism of apartheid that marred her childhood, Zuma excelled in school, becoming a doctor and a researcher. Her experiences as a child also spurred her into activism and by her twenties she had joined the African National Congress (ANC), a prominent anti-apartheid group and the current ruling political party in South Africa. Though her commitment to the ANC would cause her to live in exile for many years, she eventually returned to South Africa and began to play governmental roles in the resurrection of her country from the devastating aftermath of apartheid.
Though she has endured controversy—some would say even courted it—the consensus is that Zuma is dedicated to serving her country. A senior ANC member who knew Zuma in exile was quoted in the Mail and Guardian describing her as, “refreshing; very simple and uncomplicated and frank; open, honest and direct.” The article went on to quote another colleague who noted Zuma’s “capacity for hard work” and her “genuineness” as “legendary” within the ANC. However, the source added, “when the situation calls for it, she can be tough and difficult, and can get very stubborn indeed.”
Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini was born on January 27, 1949. She was the eldest of eight children born to a rural Catholic school teacher in KwaZulu-Natal. Despite the family’s poverty and the racist and sexist politics of the time, Zuma’s father insisted she receive an education and she was sent to study science and math at the Adams Mission School in order to prepare her for medical school. While there she experienced a disturbing example of the cruelness of racism. Like most institutions in South Africa at the time there were separate facilities for the white and black staff right
At a Glance…
Born Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini, January 27, 1949 in Kzazu-Natal, South Africa; married Jacob Zuma, 1972; divorced 1997; four children, Education: University of Zululand, BS, zoology and botany, 1971; attended Univ. of Natal, 1972-1976; Univ. of Bristol, England, medical degree, 1978; Univ. of Liverpool, School of Tropical Medicine, diploma, tropical child health, 1986. Politics: African National Congress.
Career; Univ, of Natal, Durban, Medical School, research technician, 1972; Frenchay Hospital, England, house officer, surgery, 1978-79; Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hosp., house officer, 1979-80; Mbabane Government Hosp., Swaziland, medical officer, pediatrics, 1980-85; Wittingtong Hosp., pediatric attachment, 1987-89; ANC Health Dept., Lusaka, Zambia, 1989-1990; Medical Research Council, Durban, research scientist, 1991-94; Minister of Health, South Africa, 1994-99; Minister Foreign Affairs, South Africa, June 1999-.
Memberships: President, World Conference Against Racism, 2001; chancellor, ML Sultan Technikon, 1996; dep. chair, UNAIDS Board, World Health Organization, 1995; bd mem., Centre for Social Development Studies, Univ. of Natal, 1992; trustee, Health Systems Trust, South Africa, 1992; Steering Committee, National AIDS Coordinating Comm. of South Africa, 1992; Gender Advisory Comm., Convention for a Democratic South Africa, 1992; chair, ANC Women’s League (ANCWL), Southern Natal Region, 1991-93; Exec. Comm., ANC, Southern Natal Region, 1990-93; chair, ANC, Southern Natal Region Health Comm., 1990-92; dir., Health Refugee Trust, Health and Devel. Organisation, 1988-90; ANC, Regional Political Comm., Great Britain., vice chair, 1987-88, chair, 1988-89; ANC, Youth Section, Great Britain, 1977-78; vice pres, South African Students Organisation, 1976,
Awards; Honorary doctorates: Univ. of Bristol, England, 1996; Univ. of Natal, South Africa, 1995.
Addresses: Office —Minstry of Foreign Affairs Union Buildings, East Wing, Government Ave., PEX152, Pretoria, 0001, South Africa.
down to the dishware. A favorite black teacher, finding he had no cup to drink from, borrowed one from the white staff room. According to an article on Zuma published on the BBC’s website, “After he had drunk from it, one of the white teachers entered the black staff room in a fury, picked up the cup and smashed it on the floor, so no white lips would ever touch it again.”
After earning a degree in zoology and botany at the University of Zululand in 1971, Zuma arrived at the University of Natal where she worked as a research technician and began to study medicine. The university was a hotbed of anti-apartheid sentiment and Zuma’s classmates included Steven Biko, one of the leading figures in the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). The BCM was a radical movement that encouraged black South Africans to assert themselves in a political environment in which being black meant being inferior. In 1973 Biko was banned by the government. Banning, a form of psychological and geographical imprisonment, required that the banned person relocate to an isolated area where they were subject to constant surveillance by the police and not allowed to associate with more than one person at a time. Biko’s fate did not deter Zuma’s own immersion in the BCM. She soon became embroiled in student politics and by 1976 was appointed vice-president of the South African Students’ Organization. She had also joined the African National Congress (ANC) by this time and had become active in their underground organizing activities.
That same year the tragedy of Soweto unfolded. The BCM had begun to inspire students across the country including the thousands of schoolchildren who took to the streets of Soweto on June 16, 1976 to protest for better education. As the children marched, the South African government opened fire on the crowd. The first of many to die was a thirteen year-old boy. Hundreds more were wounded. These deaths sparked riots throughout the country and caused the government to crack down harder on advocates of BCM. It was in this atmosphere that Zuma left South Africa—and her studies—to live in exile. She was quoted by the BBC as saying of this decision, “being proud of what you are and asserting yourself is a great start, but it doesn’t liberate the country—you need a bit more than that.”
Zuma’s exile took her to Botswana, Tanzania, and eventually England where she finished her medical training at the University of Bristol in 1978 and began working in hospitals. While completing her studies, Zuma became further involved in the ANC and from 1977 to 1978 served as the chairperson for the ANC’s Youth Section in England. As a doctor, she provided medical attention to many ANC leaders including Thabo Mbeki who would be elected president of South Africa over twenty years later. In 1980 Zuma returned to Africa, this time to Swaziland, where she took a position in the pediatrics wing of the Mbabane Government Hospital, a position she held for nearly five years. During this time she was extremely active in the ANC and used her cover as a doctor to mask her activities. In Swaziland she met Jacob Zuma, another exiled South African activist and in 1982 they were married. Their marriage would last until 1997, through the birth of four children and the fall of apartheid. Jacob Zuma went on to assume vice-presidency of South Africa under Mbeki in 1999.
Zuma returned to England in the 1980s where she earned a diploma in tropical child health from the University of Liverpool in 1986. While there she continued to be active in the ANC serving as vice-chairperson and then chairperson for the Regional Political Committee of the ANC in England. In 1989 Zuma joined the health department of the ANC in Zambia and in 1991 was one of the first batch of ANC exiles to return to South Africa. Upon her return she took a job as a research scientist in Durban. She is widely credited as having helped reestablish the ANC in the southern Natal region of the country when she served as both an executive committee member and a chairperson for ANC groups in that area in the early 1990s. In 1992 she was a member of the Gender Advisory Committee during the historic Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) negotiations that would culminate in the first post-apartheid government of South Africa with Nelson Mandela as its president.
In 1994 Zuma was appointed minister of health in the newly democratic government of Mandela. According to Mail and Guardian, Zuma “was surprised to be called to Pretoria for the post.” This did not deter her vigorously throwing herself into the job. When asked her greatest accomplishment during her five year tenure in this position she told Mail and Guardian, ” Undoubtedly, the free health care for children under six that President Mandela announced after his election…. The fact that it was done in the first 100 days was a real highlight, because if it hadn’t been done then, so many questions would have been asked that it would never have happened.” The BBC described other highlights of Zuma’s time as minister of health. “She made it her mission to deliver public health care to millions of dispossessed South Africans, and in just a few short years succeeded in changing the focus of a health system previously exclusively geared to cater for whites.” The BBC continued, “For the first time in the country’s history, pregnant women and children under six had access to free primary health care, abortions were legalized on demand and a previously divided and unequal health service was united.” Zuma also made a name for herself in her dogged pursuit of accountability for tobacco companies and her anti-smoking campaign. According to the BBC, Zuma “pioneered one of the most advanced pieces of anti-smoking legislation in the world, and pushed it through parliament against overwhelming opposition.” She showed equal determination in challenging the world’s pharmaceutical giants to provide generic and low cost medicines to South Africans, the majority of whom were too poor to afford even the most basic of medicines.
Despite her successes Zuma is no stranger to controversy. Her first political challenge as minister of health occurred in 1995 when her department pumped millions of dollars into a musical about AIDS, Sarafina II. Created to warn South Africans of the dangers of HIV and AIDS—both rampant in South Africa—the play suffered from severe mismanagement. After the media revealed numerous financial irregularities with the production, the Health Ministry abruptly cancelled the play in 1996 after just two performances. Zuma and key members of her department were investigated for corruption and though she was cleared of all charges in 1999, public suspicion continued to surround her. Mail and Guardian wrote, “[Zuma] failed because, rather than acknowledging that there might have been irregularities and instituting an immediate inquiry, she rushed, hackishly, to the defence of a department that seems to have acted indefensibly; and then demanded of the ANC that it rush, as hackishly, to her own defence.” She refused to accept any blame and lashed out at those who demanded she did. It was a public relations nightmare.”
Throughout her career, Zuma’s public image has been tumultuous. She blamed the media, telling Mail and Guardian, ” I’ve never received good press; everything I touch is attacked.” However, it is just this sort of defensiveness that causes the public and the media to disapprove of her. Mail and Guardian wrote, “Criticism of her approach has been rejected with unreasonable fury.” She has been quick to play the race card, blaming white interests whenever her actions are questioned. The BBC noted, “Her brusque, direct and sometimes abrasive management of her portfolio earned her many enemies, and a few nick-names, the most commonly used being “Godzuma” after the mythical monster “Godzilla” which destroys everything in its wake.”
Despite her problems and the controversies she has incited, Zuma—with the unwavering support of the ANC—has persevered and has won respect with irrefutable results. Confident of her ability, Thabo Mbeki, upon his ascension to the presidency promptly appointed Zuma minister of foreign affairs in June of 1999. She appeared an unlikely choice for a post that requires utmost diplomacy. One opposition leader was quoted by BBC as saying her appointment was like, “sending the bull into the china shop.” However, South Africa’s foreign policy was a tangled mess—the perfect project for Zuma’s determination. Of the transition from health to foreign affairs, Zuma told the BBC, “While I may have changed my theatre of operations, I remain committed to delivering tangible benefits to the people of South Africa.”
When she assumed office, Zuma considered one of her main concerns as minister of foreign affairs, “to challenge the rich countries and institutions of the world, and to say that it is unacceptable for one part of the world to be so rich and for the other to be dying of hunger. The three richest people in the world have more assets than the least developed countries (LLDC) combined. That is totally unacceptable morally.” She very visibly tackled this issue with her participation in the 2001 World Conference on Racism. Elected president of the conference which was held in her old stomping grounds of Durban, Zuma played an important role in drafting the final declaration. As published on the conference’s website, it stated We “resolve to free every man, woman and child from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of poverty to which more than one billion of them are currently subjected.”
She won accolades for her part in the conference from the Mail and Guardian’s 2001 annual report card of the country’s leaders. She was also cited for her role in assisting Nelson Mandela with installing a government in Burundi, propping Mbeki up for a role in the Middle East peace process, and recognizing the need for a healthy relationship with the developed world. “Foreign affairs is one of the government’s relative strengths and for this [Zuma] deserves credit, the Mail and Guardian report card noted. Yet, it also stated, “Her weakness has always been her high-handed and abrasive interpersonal style and her inability to get on with her senior officials.” Her final score was a C. Though her personality doesn’t win many friends, it does win results. In a country like South Africa, still in its infancy democratically, yet also plagued by centuries old problems including racism, poverty, and disease, Zuma’s tough-hitting, no-nonsense style may prove to be just what the country needed.
Global Dialogue, December 1999.
The Lancet, May 8, 1999.
Mail and Guardian (South Africa), March 22, 1996; October 25, 1996; December 31, 1996; December 20, 1999.
BBC World News, www.bbc.co.uk
Mail and Guardian, www.mg.co.za/mg/za/news/99jun/cabinet/nkosazanazuma.html
World Conference on Racism, www.unhchr.ch
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