It’s a remarkable comeback.
In 2005, he was accused of corruption and sacked from his job as deputy president. In 2006, the daughter of an old friend, a woman half his age who is diagnosed as HIV positive, accused him of rape. And now, in the final days of 2007, he is in position to become South Africa’s next president.
Delegates of the African National Congress—the vaunted party of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela—overwhelmingly voted controversial firebrand Jacob Zuma in as its new leader Tuesday at a party conference in the northern city of Polokwane.
Mr. Zuma received 2,329 votes, ahead of South African President Thabo Mbeki’s 1,505 votes, following one of the most divisive campaigns the traditionally unified party has ever seen.
Because the ANC controls nearly 70 percent of the vote, Zuma’s win means he is almost certain to be nominated and emerge victorious in presidential elections scheduled for 2009.
A controversial choice
In 2005, Zuma’s financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for corruption based on a relationship of “mutually beneficial symbiosis” with the deputy president. Soon after, Mbeki, who had already fallen out with Zuma anyway, unceremoniously fired him, and official corruption charges soon followed.
The corruption trial was thrown out for lack of evidence—but the National Prosecuting Authority has indicated it may revive charges against Zuma within a matter of months. Zuma, who protests that the accusations against him are politically motivated, has said that, nonetheless, if convicted, he would step down. In such a case, Zuma would handpick a successor to become ANC party president.
Corruption is but one image problem Zuma needs to battle. Last year, the daughter of one of his friends, who had been staying with Zuma, accused him of rape. He was found not guilty, but not before Zuma testified that he knowingly (and, he said consensually) had unprotected intercourse with the HIV-positive woman.
Perhaps surprisingly, The ANC Women’s League endorsed Zuma in this week’s elections. The powerful unions, as well as the ANC Youth League, also stood behind Zuma, helping to bring him victory Tuesday.
A vote against Mbeki
Mbeki, who will stay on as president for the time being but be stripped of his role as party leader, has increasingly been criticized as being disconnected from the people, aloof, even hostile. Zuma, a large man with a wide smile and an earthy, approachable manner, has capitalized on his rival’s negative image, painting himself as the man of the people.
An ethnic Zulu—unlike both Mr. Mandela and Mbeki, who are from the Xhosa tribe—Zuma often follows traditional ways, wearing Zulu regalia, including a shield and cowhide, when he returns to his rural home. His campaign T-shirts read “100 percent Zulu boy.”