I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to hear Jacob Zuma, the president of the African National Congress (ANC) and most likely South Africa’s next president, speak at NYU. A highly controversial figure, I’d read much about his charisma and popular appeal, as well as his legal troubles—including some alarming statements about women and HIV made during his 2006 trial for rape, in which he was acquitted.

In his prepared remarks, Zuma gave an insightful overview of the progress South Africa made since the end of apartheid in 1994, and of the challenges the country still faced. He described “a country of stark contrasts,” in which great wealth existed alongside abject poverty. He spoke of the nation’s “two economies”—one informal, the other formal—and the difficulties of moving between the two for the millions who had little formal schooling under apartheid.

On South Africa’s high HIV/AIDS rate, he said the ANC had a “comprehensive program to tackle AIDS, with specific targets”—a refreshing change from the policies of the recently ousted President Thabo Mbeki.

On the touchy subject of Mbeki, who in September was asked to resign early by the ANC in a move engineered by Zuma’s supporters, Zuma pointed out that, if a sitting president had been asked to resign in most other African countries, a civil war would have exploded. Mbeki’s departure, Zuma declared, was an example of the “maturity of democracy in South Africa.”

I must admit that I went into the talk prepared to dislike Zuma. But as he spoke, Zuma gave the impression of a man who was keenly aware of the challenges he faced, and was both realistic and hopeful about the prospects for change. Interestingly, he made a point of introducing the other ANC leaders in the audience, stressing the “collective” nature of the party. I left with the impression that, despite my personal distaste for aspects of his past, Jacob Zuma could very well prove to be a capable president of South Africa and possibly even a force for change on the continent.

Written by Jennifer Dunham