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S.Africa’s Zuma: Troubled leader with knack for survival

South Africa’s jovial leader Jacob Zuma is a former herdboy who was once known as the “Teflon president” — but no longer.

Late US president Ronald Reagan first earned the sobriquet Teflon — “nothing sticks” — for surviving a series of scandals while in office, and 74-year-old Zuma has done much the same through a very different set of problems.

Now things are getting sticky for him.

A past freedom fighter, Zuma has kept his political career alive despite a trial on charges of raping a family friend as well as allegations of corruption, abuse of power and misusing $24 million of state funds to refurbish his private residence.

As leader of the late Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), which has won every election since South Africa became a democracy in 1994, Zuma was an easy victor when securing a second five-year term in 2014.

The son of a domestic worker, he has “a very strong appeal” to the working class and the poor, says Sdumo Dlamini, head of the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), an ANC ally.

“He is a people’s person and he has grown through the ranks of the working class. He knows the suffering of the ordinary folk.”

– Grassroots support –

Born on April 12, 1942, in the rural outpost of Nkandla in the north of the coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma had a meteoric rise in politics though it was marked by controversy.

Popularly referred to as “JZ”, he enjoys loyalty from millions of ANC grassroots supporters awed by his journey from uneducated cattle herder to president, with a 10-year stint as an apartheid-era political prisoner along the way.

When he took the reins of the ANC in 2007 in a putsch against ex-president Thabo Mbeki, Zuma inherited a party riddled with divisions that had festered under Mbeki, who was accused of being out of touch with the masses.

Tensions have since deepened further as poverty and unemployment levels continue to blight the country more than 20 years after the end of white-minority rule, and the ANC has been accused of losing its moral compass.

As criticism of his reign mounted, Zuma has maintained a cheerful public facade, often giggling and laughing as the allegations against him built up.

But he has also made significant U-turns to head off the most damaging lines of attack, and has been significantly weakened over the last year.

Last December, he was forced into a climbdown after firing a respected minister of finance and appointing a man widely seen as a stooge.

As the local rand currency went into freefall, Zuma bowed to pressure and reappointed an admired former finance minister to the key post.

And in March he finally agreed to pay back some of the public money spent on his rural residence at Nkandla — backing down and apologising after two years of resistance.

– Zulu warrior gear –

Zuma’s private life is as colourful as his political career.

A proud traditionalist, he often swaps his suits for full leopard-pelt Zulu warrior gear, engaging in energetic ground-stomping tribal dances during ceremonies in his village.

At ANC rallies, he is normally the first to break into tuneful song.

In the past, he loved leading supporters in the rousing anti-apartheid struggle song “Umshini Wami” (Bring Me My Machine Gun), which became his signature tune.

The teetotaller and non-smoker has four wives and at least 20 children, making Zuma the only president in sub-Saharan Africa who is an open polygamist.

Before taking office, Zuma dismayed the nation during his 2006 rape trial when he told the court he had showered after having sex with his young HIV-positive accuser to avoid contracting the virus.

He was head of the country’s national AIDS council at the time.

Zuma was acquitted of rape but is mocked in newspaper cartoons — where he is often depicted with a shower nozzle sprouting from his bald head — and in art.

An infamous painting called “The Spear”, which showed him in a Vladimir Lenin pose with his genitals exposed, stirred a racially charged storm in 2010 when senior ANC officials campaigned to have it removed from a gallery and it was vandalised.

During Zuma’s time in power, South Africa has also been rocked by increasing social unrest over a failure to provide enough housing and basic services such as electricity and water to end the inequalities of apartheid.

Despite the stalling economy and the many calls for him to stand down, Zuma may well see off his critics and stay in office until his term ends in 2019.