Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma is now the clear favourite to become the next leader of the African National Congress, after receiving more nominations than any other candidate. This would put him in pole position to become South Africa's next president, in elections due in 2009.

And yet just two years ago, his political career was all but written off, when he was battling sleazy allegations of rape and corruption. But Mr Zuma was acquitted of rape - and the corruption case against him has been put on hold. His friends say the accusations against him were politically-motivated and it was not long before support rallied again around the ANC's most prominent left-winger. His supporters have never doubted that he had the popular touch. They contrast him to President Thabo Mbeki, seen as rather aloof.

Popular support for Zuma was unwavering though the court cases. "He is a man who listens; he doesn't take the approach of an intellectual king", said one unnamed supporter, in an apparent swipe at Mr Mbeki. Born in 1942 and brought up by his widowed mother in Zululand, Jacob Zuma had no formal schooling. He joined the ANC at the age of 17, becoming an active member of its military wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe, in 1962. He was convicted of conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government and was imprisoned for 10 years on the notorious Robben Island. Mr Zuma subsequently left South Africa, living first in Mozambique, then Zambia as he rose through the ANC ranks to the executive committee, becoming one of the first leaders to return home in 1990 when the ANC was unbanned, to take part in negotiations with the white minority government.

He credits his political awakening to a family member who was an active trade unionist and throughout his political career, Mr Zuma has championed the rights of the people. His supporters believe the man they call JZ will redistribute South Africa's wealth in favour of the poor. Yet fears that a potential Zuma candidacy could have a negative influence on the economy and scare off foreign investors appear over-stated. Business leaders have told the BBC that they are not worried - they have received assurances from Mr Zuma that policy is set by the ANC conference, not the party leader, and he will abide by official party policy.

Securing the endorsement of the ANC Women's League - in defiance of an earlier league decision to put forward a female candidate for the party leadership - will have given a great boost to the Zuma campaign. Some analysts had predicted he would divide the women's vote, with many unwilling to forgive him for the admission that he had unprotected sex with the HIV-positive family friend at the centre of the rape case.

His statement that he showered afterwards to guard against possible infection provoked public criticism and ridicule in equal measure. The BBC's Mike Wooldridge says his apology appeared to do little to dilute the charge that Mr Zuma's judgement and integrity are questionable. And yet his popularity is undiminished. The outcome of the nominations process has been described on the Friends of Jacob Zuma website as having "confounded the analysts, revealing that the media and political commentators are out of touch with sentiment in the ANC."

Proof positive will come from the secret ballot at the ANC conference in Polokwane and if, as now seems likely, Mr Zuma emerges triumphant, then the party's most prominent Zulu will be favourite to succeed Thabo Mbeki as head of state in 2009.



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