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South Africa’s Zuma: from liberation hero to convicted criminal

South Africa’s embattled ex-president Jacob Zuma, once jailed for fighting the apartheid regime, now faces another 15 months behind bars for shunning a corruption probe into his administration.

Zuma — whose middle name Gedleyihlekisa means “one who laughs while grinding his enemies” — started off as a herdboy and rose to become South Africa’s fourth president under the banner of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.

Charismatic and jovial, he fell from grace before the end of his second term in 2018, ousted by his own ANC party over accusations of corruption and abuse of power.

But the 79-year-old has retained a loyal network of lawmakers, officials and grassroot supporters who have continued to rally behind their former leader despite the scandals tarnishing his reputation.

They have defended Zuma’s repeated snubbing of an anti-graft commission that led South Africa’s top court to compel him to testify, and then hand him a year-and-three-month jail sentence for defying that order.

Zuma walked out of the panel accusing its chair, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, of bias, despite 34 witnesses having linked him to malfeasances

His supporters maintain the allegations are politically motivated.

Zuma is no strangers to impropriety.

He also faces 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering relating to a 1999 purchase of weapons and gear from European arms firms when he was deputy president.

In 2006, he was taken to court for allegedly raping a colleague’s HIV-positive daughter — of which he was acquitted.

During the trial, Zuma infamously told judges he had unprotected sex with the woman and showered after intercourse to avoid catching the virus.

– Dodgy dealings –

He succeeded ex-president Thabo Mbeki in 2007 and inherited a party riddled with divisions that continued to mar his presidency.

A Zuma-led ANC faction in 2009 disbanded an elite anti-corruption body, known as the Scorpions, set up by his predecessor after it began irking the president and his allies.

But his dodgy dealings caught up with him.

It was Zuma himself, under pressure over an emerging plethora of graft scandals, who set up the Zondo commission shortly before his ousting.

He testified only once, in July 2019, and has since ignored several invitations to reappear.

Born on April 12, 1942 in a rural hamlet in KwaZulu-Natal province, Zuma joined the ANC as a teenager, when the party was still underground, and rose through its ranks.

After a 10-year stint in prison at Robben Island for fighting white-minority rule, Zuma fled into exile and became the party’s feared head of intelligence.

The anti-apartheid struggle song “Umshini Wami”, Bring Me My Machine Gun, became his signature tune.

In 1999, he was elected deputy president.

A proud traditionalist, Zuma still often swaps tailored suits for traditional Zulu leopard-skin dress, taking part in ground-stomping warrior dances during ceremonies in his native village.

A teetotaller and non-smoker, he married seven times and has at least 20 children.

And Zuma’s private persona is more approachable. A TikTok video posted in May showed him dancing with some of his granddaughters.

Zuma’s strong family and cultural values continue to attract support, although his fan base has dwindled over the years.

At Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in 2013, he was loudly booed by ordinary South Africans in front of world leaders.