Here's what has been said of Jacob Zuma, sworn in Saturday as president of South Africa - that he enjoys dancing at public events wrapped in tiger skins and a loincloth, that he has 22 children from six wives, that he spent 10 years in a prison run by the apartheid regime and 15 more in exile, and that he supports the death penalty and examining women's virginity before marriage. He was also charged with raping a woman he knew was HIV-positive who had "tempted" him with her "provocative" posture, then took a shower to (by his account) reduce the risk of contracting the virus. We also know he was found guilty of corruption and fraud, but was acquitted due to procedural failings.
The tale of the uneducated Zulu shepherd who became one of Africa's most powerful men can compete with any story of achieving the American dream. South Africa's ambassador to Israel, Ismail Coovadia, has said the rise to power of this unlikely, colorful figure would have a positive influence on relations between the two countries, and spoke of "excellent relations" that will only grow deeper. Representatives of South Africa's Jewish community who met with Zuma last year were impressed with his charisma and personal warmth, and are pinning their hopes on a letter he gave them, in which he committed his support for the two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Other observers are convinced Zuma's activities in the Middle East will be largely influenced by such bodies as the ANC Youth League, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) - all of them central pillars of Zuma's base and widely perceived as having anti-Israel views.
In February, Cosatu refused to unload ships belonging to Israel's Zim shipping company. A senior Cosatu official also called on South African Jews supporting Israel to leave the country, promising "Zionist" students in Johannesburg their lives would be "hell."
During the term of Zuma's predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, the intelligence minister declared Israel's military action in the West Bank made the apartheid regime look like a "picnic." The deputy education minister under Mbeki insulted an Israeli diplomat of Ethiopian origin and said at a pro-Palestinian demonstration that most Western countries were in the hands of "Jewish money." Mbeki's South Africa hosted the UN anti-racism conference in Durban in 2001, where Zionism was equated with racism, and calls were made to stop the "Holocaust in Palestine" and to oust the Israeli ambassador.
Israel is in large part still paying for its original sin - forging comprehensive security ties with the Apartheid regime and "selling its soul and morality to a racist, oppressive devil." In the words of former South African ambassador to Jerusalem Fumanekile Gqiba: "Israel must refrain from putting a question mark in front of our relations with the Palestinians. It must remember that it was, in the past, of the same flesh as the apartheid regime," he said.
Presumably, Zuma will be too occupied with his country's massive domestic problems to focus on foreign policy issues. From Israel's perspective, the good news is that the former intelligence minister and deputy education minister are not in his government. Still, other members of the new government have signed a petition which likens Israel's government to an apartheid regime, condemns the "Bantustanization of Palestine" and calls for the commemoration of Nakba Day instead of Israel's Independence Day.
Despite all this, observers in South Africa, including those in its Jewish community, are projecting a certain cautious optimism - even if their president does not transform into a Zionist, they foresee a warming in South African-Israeli relations. In their view, the government endangering the future of those ties sits not in Pretoria but in Jerusalem. If the new Israeli administration continues to oppose the two-state solution, South Africa will have a pretext for downgrading relations. For Zuma, Benjamin Netanyahu's verbal contortions of "economic peace" and Palestinian "autonomy" simply will not suffice.
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