/ 4 December 2007

Zuma brushes off scandals to lead race

Jacob Zuma is hounded by corruption allegations and his rape trial often overshadows his status as a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Yet the burly Zulu politician has shrugged off obstacles that would have crippled others to emerge as favourite to lead the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and eventually become South Africa’s president.

The party chooses a new leader at a December 16 to 20 conference. Zuma, deputy ANC leader, has already taken a commanding lead over South African President Thabo Mbeki among party branches. If he wins, Zuma (65) is all but certain to become the country’s next president in 2009.

How has a man with so many disadvantages emerged as the frontrunner?

The answer lies in his appeal as a champion of the poor and a rough-hewn charisma that contrasts with the colder image of Mbeki, a skilled backroom politician and highly educated intellectual but ill at ease in front of crowds and unpopular with the left.

Residents of Alexandra township can relate to Zuma, the son of a widowed domestic worker, who, by the age of 15, was out at work.

”He speaks the truth. He cares. He knows what it is like to be poor,” said Sandile Eugene, an Alexandra trader.

Adam Habib, of the Human Sciences Research Council, called him a fantastic networker: ”I don’t think a lack of formal education means much. He’s a skilled politician. He’s by no means an incapable person.”

Zuma’s humble origins have enhanced his appeal to the poor and the powerful trade unions, impatient at the slow pace with which South Africa’s riches are filtering down to the working classes more than a decade after the end of apartheid.


Even though Zuma has said little about policy, his advance has caused jitters in the markets and he has recently tried to reassure big investors that he will not move away from Mbeki’s conservative economic policies, which have nurtured the country’s longest-ever period of growth.

”Zuma is regarded as more of a populist leader and as a result he might have less concern about the interests of business,” said Russell Lamberti, an analyst at ETM trading house.

A former member of the ANC military wing, Zuma rose through the ranks to become head of intelligence. Like Nelson Mandela, he was imprisoned on Robben Island for conspiring to overthrow white rule, spending 10 years there before going into exile.

He earned respect as a peacemaker, mediating between the ANC and the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) during severe violence in the early 1990s.

Mbeki is not allowed to serve as national president again after the end of his second term in 2009 but wants to remain head of the ANC to retain influence over the country’s future, analysts say.

The ANC Women’s League has backed Zuma, even though they criticised him after the rape trial at which he was acquitted last year, when he justified having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman by saying he had showered afterwards.

Alexandra shop assistant Thuli Zulu said Zuma was treated unfairly.

”He is perfect,” she said. ”He will be a good president.”

Zuma has at least 18 children from several wives but that also wins votes in a culture traditionally dominated by men.

”Jacob Zuma supporters are two-fold: [from] the chord he strikes with ordinary people, and [from] the severe revolt with Mbeki within ranks of the ANC,” said Habib. — Reuters