Just who is the man about to become not only the president of South Africa, but the most powerful man on the continent?
Most South Africans call him Jay Zed. Others call him by his clan name—Msholozi. And supporters wear T-shirts proclaiming him “100 percent Zulu boy.”
His full name is Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, the middle name, loosely translated from the Zulu, means: “I may laugh with you, but I will be watching my back.” It is a name that has surely suited him, especially in the last few tumultuous years—years in which he was fired as the country’s deputy president; was accused of rape and charged with corruption, bribery, racketeering and money laundering.
So just who is Jacob Zuma?
The man who has been described as part of the African National Congress’ “warrior elite—before the end of apartheid—has survived it all. His supporters, and even some of his detractors, say his resiliency is a testament to his instinct for politics, and many would say, his connection with “the people.” He presents a stark contrast to the cerebral former president Thabo Mbeki, whom Zuma vanquished on his way to the top.
Zuma's father died when he was young, and he worked as a herd boy and kitchen boy to help support himself and his mother. Some say that his lack of formal education has worked to his political advantage. Dali Tambo, son of the late president Oliver Tambo, remembers his mother, Adelaide Tambo, sizing up Zuma’s tough instincts. She told him Zuma was “self-educated in that he was in stormy waters and had to swim for survival like all these other poor rural children and yet found a political calling and directed his life toward that."
In 1959, when blacks had no rights in his country, Zuma joined the African National Congress. Two years later, he joined the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) or Spear of the Nation. He trained in the Soviet Union, and the white South African regime arrested and convicted him of conspiring to overthrow the government. He was sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island and served with Nelson Mandela and many other “struggle veterans.”
In the violent run-up to the 1994 elections, the white minority regime helped foment black-on-black violence in Zuma’s home territory, Kwa-Zulu Natal. It was Zuma who was sent to quell the violence, which had taken hundreds of lives. And it was Zuma who conducted a successful end to the conflicts.
In post-apartheid South Africa, Jacob Zuma rose to become President Thabo Mbeki’s deputy president, the two having shared a close struggle history. But Mbeki fired Zuma in 2005 after Zuma’s business partner was convicted of bribery in an arms deal. The business partner was sentenced to 15 years in jail, and Zuma was subsequently charged with racketeering, money laundering, bribery and corruption. He insisted the charges were politically motivated.
But true to his reputation as a survivor, he laid in the cut—or maybe worked in the field—until last December, when he defeated Mbeki for ANC party president, paving the way for him to become president of the nation. (In South Africa’s parliamentary system, the party runs in the election, and then chooses who it wants to serve in that capacity.)
After years of having the corruption cloud hanging over both his head and his political ambitions, all the charges were dropped two weeks ago, clearing the way for Zuma to become president without worrying about an impending trial. He was tried once before, in 2006, on rape charges and acquitted. (He has remained the subject of ongoing ridicule, in relation to that case, for testifying that he protected himself from having unsafe sex with an HIV positive woman by taking a shower after the encounter.)
After the recent charges were dropped, his challengers in the presidential race cried foul, claiming political interference in the legal process.
Zuma’s reiterated that he had been the target of political scheming. “My conscience is clear … I have not committed any crime against the state or the people of South Africa. Clearly I have been vindicated,” he told the nation in a public speech, just after the charges were dropped.
The opposition still insists that they will not rest until Zuma faces the corruption charges in a court of law.
Zuma’s troubles do not appear to have affected his support among his base—tens of thousands turned out Sunday for the ANC’s final rally, when the canny pol pulled a whopper: He produced Nelson Mandela, who sat smiling as they flashed on screens his endorsement of the ANC in a videotaped message. And Zuma seems to have the all-important business sector, which is still dominated by whites. And despite Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s remark that Zuma was “unfit to be president,” many church leaders disagree. I recently attended a rally of some 500 church leaders who enthusiastically endorsed Zuma. One of them, George Lebusa, spoke in Zuma’s favor saying that Zuma “believes what we believe as Christians with our moral values.”
The ministers are well aware of the very public rape case and the fact that Zuma has several wives and more than a dozen children. They say he remains acceptable because polygamy is still a part of Zulu custom.
As they support him, they join the thousands who cheer Zuma on as he dances as he did on Sunday and at all rallies leading up to it, often dressed in lion skins, singing a song from the struggle days that he has made his own: Umshini wam: Bring me my machine gun.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a Johannesburg-based journalist and author of New News Out of Africa: Uncovering the African Renaissance.