One way to understand Jacob Zuma’s presidency is to place it in a long history stretching almost back to precolonial times. From this vantage point we can grasp just how unusual and consequential his time in power has been. When Christian missionaries set up shop in Southern Africa in the early and mid-19th century they brought with them the tools that would later prove all-important in fighting colonialism: reading and writing. Though they only dimly knew it, the Africans who attended the early mission schools were thus passing on to their descendants the most consequential inheritance. Within a generation, they had formed a regional Southern African elite, steeped in reading and writing, hungry to study abroad and bent on giving their children, and their children’s children, the best.More than a century later, the majority of those who led the struggle for freedom were mission-educated, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Govan Mbeki the most prominent among them. And when they grew ...

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