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Zuma leads South Africa's presidential race

Jacob Zuma overcame rape charges and corruption allegations to run for presidency.

Supporters of South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) campaign for their party's candidate for president, Jacob Zuma. Zuma is getting considerable support in South Africa's black townships, such as this one in Cape Town's Mitchells's Plain township. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

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.