Zuma leads South Africa's presidential race

JOHANNESBURG — After being fired as South Africa's deputy president, facing corruption charges and standing trial for rape, Jacob Zuma has made a remarkable political comeback and is the hands-down frontrunner to be elected the country's next president.

The African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled since 1994, is widely expected to sweep national elections on April 22 because of voter loyalty to the party that ended apartheid. If that occurs, as the ANC’s leader Zuma will succeed interim President Kgalema Motlanthe, who was installed in the position in September after former president Thabo Mbeki was forced to resign.

Zuma’s climb back to power says as much about the level of resentment that Mbeki’s administration created as it does about Zuma's own political savvy. Mbeki alienated many within the ANC and its leftist allies through his focus on economic growth and his high-handed management style. So when he fired Zuma — his onetime friend — over corruption allegations in 2005, Mbeki’s opponents rallied around Zuma to regain control of the party.

“Mbeki was disliked for a whole range of reasons, and Zuma just happened to be the instrument who was in a position to be used as the battering ram to get rid of him,” said political analyst Allister Sparks. “This was definitely an anti-Mbeki campaign rather than a pro-Zuma campaign.”

It has taken more than opportunism for Zuma to endear himself to the majority of ANC supporters, however. A good listener, he lends his ear to all, whether poor black families, rich businessmen or Afrikaner farmers. This is a vital skill for campaigns, but it is equally crucial when maintaining a balance within the complex coalition that is the ANC, where communists, trade unions and business owners all have a voice.

Those who will expect most from Zuma, however, are South Africa’s poorest citizens. Africa’s largest economy is still saddled with chronic poverty and an official unemployment rate of 21.9 percent.

Leon Jimmy, for instance, has high expectations for a Zuma administration. The 23-year-old from Soweto currently distributes advertising leaflets at a busy intersection, but he hopes to score a job in plastering or paving once his vote ushers Zuma into power.

“If you need help, he’s going to give you help with everything,” he said.

Sipho Seepe, the head of the South African Institute of Race Relations, said it is Zuma’s humble beginnings that allow him to connect with the country’s most vulnerable population. The son of a policeman and a domestic worker, Zuma never received any formal education and grew up herding cattle and goats.

“He has not forgotten the people who have been bypassed by the dividends of democracy, people who are in the rural areas, people who are in the squatter camps,” Seepe said. “The people also believe in him, they embrace him because they see him as one of their own.”

Born in 1942 in a small rural town in the heart of Zululand, Zuma was only 17 when he joined the ANC. In 1963, he was arrested and convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the government. He spent 10 years on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was also imprisoned, and furthered his political education with ANC leaders. After his release, he lived 15 years in exile — part of it alongside Mbeki — and became the leader of the ANC’s intelligence department.

Upon his return to South Africa, Zuma served as a mediator in the dispute between the ANC and the Inkhata Freedom Party in his native province of Kwazulu-Natal. That bitter rivalry had caused the deaths of scores of people, but Zuma is credited with stepping in and deftly resolving the ethnic problem.

Zuma had been the country’s deputy president for four years when a national prosecutor declared in 2003 that he had “prima facie” evidence of corruption against Zuma but that his case was unwinnable. Two years later, Zuma’s financial adviser was convicted of taking bribes for Zuma, and within days Zuma was fired by Mbeki and charged with corruption.

A rape trial the next year didn’t do much to improve his reputation. Zuma was acquitted of the rape charges, although his own testimony that he knowingly had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman, and that he took a shower afterwards as a safety meaure, made him seem foolish.

Over the following two years, Zuma continuously claimed the corruption charges against him were politically motivated, and his supporters alleged that Mbeki was behind the plot. When a judge agreed, Mbeki was forced to step down as president, and the charges against Zuma were finally dropped earlier this month before he could go to trial.

Zuma’s troubles may not be over. The Democratic Alliance — the main opposition party — has asked for a judicial review of the decision to drop charges and launched a “Stop Zuma” campaign this week asserting that corruption would be rampant under a Zuma presidency. The Congress of the People, a breakaway party formed by ANC dissidents in the wake of Mbeki’s dismissal, has made the independence of the judiciary a central element of its campaign.

“He remains a man under a cloud of stigma because he has not been cleared of the charges,” Sparks said.

None of this bothers Zuma's supporters, who fervently believe this man of the people will bring more of the fruits of democracy to South Africa's poor black minority.

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