JOHANNESBURG. The private life of South Africa’s embattled President Jacob Zuma, who resigned after intense pressure from his own party, was as colourful as his political career. A proud traditionalist, he was fond of swapping tailored suits for full leopard-pelt Zulu warrior gear, engaging in energetic ground-stomping tribal dances during ceremonies in his village.
At party rallies, he was often the first to break into tuneful song. In the past, he relished leading supporters in the rousing anti-apartheid struggle song “Umshini Wami” (Bring Me My Machine Gun), which became his signature tune. The teetotaller and non-smoker has four wives and at least 20 children.
Before taking office, Mr Zuma dismayed the nation during his 2006 rape trial when he told the court he had showered after having unprotected sex with his young HIV-positive accuser to avoid, he said, contracting the virus. The claim incensed safe-sex campaigners – not least because Mr Zuma was head of the country’s AIDS council at the time. Mr Zuma was acquitted of rape but was often mocked in newspaper cartoons and depicted with a shower nozzle sprouting from his bald head.
Now aged 75, the former herdboy who fought in the anti-apartheid struggle, clung on to the presidency for as long as he could, despite a string of scandals. He survived by building a network of loyal African National Congress (ANC) lawmakers and officials, and by trading on the party’s legacy as the organisation that ended white-minority rule.
Among the stains on his presidency which ended when he resigned on Feb 14 Valentines Day, was the perception that he fostered a culture of government corruption. He is also accused of having led the country into a quagmire of low growth, huge debt and record unemployment.
As leader of the late Nelson Mandela’s ANC party, which has won every election since South Africa became a democracy in 1994, Mr Zuma easily won a second five-year term in 2014. The son of a domestic worker, he had “a very strong appeal” to the working class and the poor, “He is a people’s person and he has grown through the ranks of the working class. He knows the suffering of the ordinary folk.” .
Born on April 12, 1942, in Nkandla, a rural hamlet in KwaZulu-Natal province, Mr Zuma’s extraordinary journey inspires his loyal grassroots supporters. Popularly referred to as “JZ”, the uneducated youngster rose through the ranks of the then-banned ANC, serving a 10-year stint as an apartheid-era political prisoner on Robben Island along the way.
After fleeing into exile, he became the party’s feared head of intelligence, charged with dealing with traitors and informants.
When he took the reins of the ANC in 2007, Mr Zuma inherited a movement riddled with divisions. As criticism of his reign mounted, Mr Zuma maintained a cheerful public facade.
In 2016, Mr Zuma agreed to pay back some of the public money spent on his private residence at Nkandla – backing down in the face of a stinging Constitutional Court rebuke.
He has also been accused of corrupt dealings with the Guptas, a wealthy family of Indian origin, and allegedly granted them influence over his cabinet appointments. That scandal also reached a climax on Wednesday when elite corruption police arrested several people at the Gupta compound in Johannesburg.
The election of Ramaphosa as ANC leader in December signalled that his significance was waning. Mr Zuma’s tense relationship with his deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa came to a head this month when the movement to recall Mr Zuma from the presidency gained momentum on the week he was due to deliver a key parliamentary speech.
The event was postponed as Mr Zuma and Mr Ramaphosa tried to thrash out a transition deal to ease out the embattled head of state. It was clear that power was slipping away. Less than two months later, Zuma, the consummate inside operator, is on the outside.
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TWO PRESIDENTS GONE FROM POWER