A portrait of Jacob Zuma

Instead, he says, “The struggle educated me.” He was born in 1942 in “the intestines of Zululand”, the forests of Nkandla. When his father died at the end of World War II, his mother became a domestic worker and Zuma, spent his early years moving between Zululand and Cato Manor, where his mother worked. Zuma remembers trying to visit her at her work, ‘‘the dogs barking, the madam not wanting anyone to come near the house’‘. 

By the age of 15, he was doing odd jobs to supplement his mother’s meagre wage.
“My mother very much wanted to educate me and I very much wanted to be educated, but somehow it just couldn’t happen. “I realised the hardships of life at a very early age. I didn’t have what other children had. I realised my mother was suffering.’‘ 

Contact with ANC members, including an elder brother, led him to the realisation that “the suffering was not just with me but with the black man in the country”. By 1959 he was an ANC member: ‘‘That’s when I got a systematic political education; (it) concretised things for me.’’ He joined Umkhonto weSizwe in 1962. “I remember my mother getting very worried: ‘My son, these things belong to the big people, the (Albert) Luthulis and the (Nelson) Mandelas.’ “But I felt I just couldn’t fail to be in the thick of things. My view was that (by working) to correct the wrongs and participate in liberating South Africa, I’d be working for all the oppressed, not just myself or my family.’‘ 

On his way out of the country for military training, Zuma was arrested near Zeerust in the Western Transvaal. It was 1963. Later that year he was convicted of conspiring to overthrow the government violently and was sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island. “We had to deal with warders who were thoroughly briefed on how to ill-treat us. It was tough, but we soldiered through.” During his Robben Island years, Zuma had not a single visitor. He next saw his mother two weeks before his release. Back in Durban, he picked up where he’d left off - mobilising internal resistance. When ANC veteran Harry Gwala was arrested in 1975, Zuma left the country: “I was supposed to be on trial with him.” 

For the next 12 years, based first in Swaziland and then in Mozambique, he dealt with the thousands of young exiles who poured out of the country in the wake of the Soweto uprising, slipping back himself clandestinely. “I was told later the security branch were very angry they couldn’t get me; they just missed me by inches.” He rose rapidly within the ANC: in 1978 he joined the national executive, on which he has served ever since, and was appointed to its politico-military council when it was formed in the mid-1980s. Zuma says he is now “more optimistic than ever about the situation” - but the way ahead is strewn ‘‘with landmines’‘. “There’s no way back, the struggle at the political level has become so intense.”

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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