Charismatic but scandal-prone, South Africa’s leader Jacob Zuma is a former herdboy who could stake a claim to Ronald Reagan’s title of “Teflon president” as he anticipates his re-election this week.
The late US president earned the sobriquet Teflon — ‘nothing sticks’ — for surviving a series of scandals with his popularity intact, and 72-year-old Zuma has done much the same through a very different set of imbroglios.
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 $23 million of state funds to refurbish his private residence.
The world saw him booed on live television during a memorial service for former president and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela in December, but he still draws adoring crowds on the campaign trail.
As leader of Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), which has won every general election by huge margins since South Africa become a democracy in 1994, Zuma is virtually a shoo-in for a second five-year term.
The son of a domestic worker, Zuma has “a very strong appeal” to the working class and the poor, says Sdumo Dhlamini, 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.”
Born on April 12, 1942, in the rural outpost of Nkandla in the north of the coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma has had a meteoric rise in politics 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.
But divisions have deepened as poverty and unemployment levels continue to blight the country 20 years after the end of apartheid’s white-minority rule, and the ANC has been accused of losing its moral compass.
A group of former ANC stalwarts led by ex- intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils, who has strong anti-apartheid “struggle credentials”, has called for voters to choose one of the smaller opposition parties or spoil their ballots in protest against what they see as a betrayal of the ANC’s principles.
But Zuma has shrugged off the protests, going so far as to mock the opposition for its insistence that he be held to account for spending millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on his home in Nkandla.
“They are parties of legal technicalities… They only speak about two things when you count them. Corruption and Nkandla,” a jovial Zuma told supporters last week — to cheers and laughter.
He also claimed that the refurbishments were influenced by the rape of his wife at Nkandla before he became president.
– Zulu warrior –
Zuma’s private life is as colourful as his political career.
An unashamed traditionalist, he often swaps his suits for full leopard-pelt Zulu warrior gear, engaging in energetic ground-stomping tribal dances during traditional ceremonies in his village.
At ANC rallies, he is often the first to break into song, leading supporters in the rousing anti-apartheid struggle song “Umshini Wami” (Bring Me My Machine Gun), which has become his signature tune.
The teetotaller and non-smoker has four wives and 21 children, making Zuma the only president in sub-Saharan Africa who is an open polygamist.
Prior to 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 when senior ANC officials campaigned to have it removed from a gallery and it was vandalised.
During Zuma’s term in office 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.
But Zuma does not stand as an individual for president in the May 7 election, he stands as head of the ANC — which remains by far the strongest party in South Africa where it is still revered for its role in ending white racist domination.