Jacob Zuma, who will be formally elected president of South Africa by the parliament on Wednesday, is a larger-than-life figure. Will he have a "big man" effect on the rest of Africa in the traditional, imposing sense, or will he use his outsized persona to help spread democracy, peace, and prosperity on a continent that needs all three?
In his victory speech April 26, Mr. Zuma pledged that South Africa – the continent's largest economy – would continue to play a key role in international affairs. It must do better, however, than it has in the 15 years since nonwhite South Africans won universal suffrage.
Since that time, the country's influence on Africa as a whole has been mixed. One welcomed ripple effect came from its Truth and Reconciliation Commission – the courtlike setting that allowed victims of violence during apartheid to be heard, and perpetrators to testify and request amnesty.
The commission reflected Nelson Mandela's powerful policy of postapartheid forgiveness. While it met criticism, it has also served as a model for several African nations to clear the air after protracted conflict.
Zuma, however, doesn't have the same moral authority as Mr. Mandela – even if he shares Mandela's credentials as a prominent anti-apartheid activist and prisoner on Robben Island. A cloud of personal and political scandal trails this former goat herder. Will the debris follow him onto the African diplomatic stage, obscuring his leadership?
Helped by the end of international sanctions in the early 1990s, South Africa's economic growth has benefited its neighbors. South Africa brought its debt under control and became a stronger magnet for imports. Immigrant labor from neighboring countries used it as a base from which to send home earnings – though this has sparked a backlash from poor South Africans. Zuma's socialist rhetoric, though, has kept economists wondering whether he will gradually abandon fiscal restraint and a market economy.
Most regrettably, the newborn democracy of South Africa has failed to spread the democracy message itself. It had the status and means to ease out Zimbabwe's despot, Robert Mugabe. But under former President Thabo Mbeki, it chose not to. Zimbabwe is now tragically much the worse. A power-sharing deal brokered by Mr. Mbeki falls far short – though Zuma praised it in his victory address. Zuma openly criticized Mr. Mugabe before South Africa's election. Will he follow through with pressure on Mugabe now?
Farther afield, South Africa sent troops to protect Darfurians and has backed peacekeeping elsewhere. But in the United Nation's struggle to help Darfur, South Africa has also defended Sudan against tough measures such as sanctions. That halfway position can't move Darfur all the way to peace.
External challenges such as these await Zuma and his party, the African National Congress. Being a populist, he wants to please everyone. He promises to continue fiscal responsibility, but plans massive increases in welfare (tough in recession). He defends the constitutional court and derides it. He lashes out at corruption, but himself is tainted (charges against him were dropped on a technicality).
If South Africa is to spread democracy and prosperity, it has to live them itself. That is Zuma's challenge.