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Why Jacob Zuma's infidelity carries a small political price

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With 65.9 percent of the vote in the 2009 elections, President Zuma is certainly in no danger of losing either his job or his party’s hold on power. But the latest revelation – printed on the front pages of nearly every South African newspaper, and decried by almost all the opposition parties – is an interesting window on South Africa’s sharply divided political culture. It could reveal how the ANC and its leader responds to criticism and negative media coverage, setting the tone for the president’s relations with news media for the rest of his term in office.

Zuma’s private behavior, suggest critics, might undermine the government’s efforts to fight the spread of HIV – South Africa already has the highest number of citizens infected with the disease, at 5.4 million. But his actions are far from likely to lead to the sort of 1998-99 impeachment effort that President Clinton faced over his affair with Monica Lewinsky, or to lead to his resignation, as happened with Britain’s Defense Minister John Profumo in 1963.

“The way such a scandal is handled is in part shaped by the political character of the country,” says Aubrey Matshiqi, a senior researcher at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. “In France, this is not an issue. To some extent in Italy, this is not an issue. But in South Africa, we don’t have a common political culture, we have a clash of political cultures.”

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