Page last updated at 16:18 GMT, Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Jacob Zuma under pressure as UK visit begins

Jacob Zuma and his entourage arriving in London

As South African President Jacob Zuma begins his first state visit to Britain since his inauguration last May, BBC world affairs correspondent Peter Biles examines the Zuma presidency.

This visit is a high-profile occasion, not least because it comes just less than 100 days before the start of the 2010 football World Cup, a showcase event for South Africa and the African continent.

Mr Zuma is a populist politician, renowned for his charm and informality. However, South African and British officials will be hoping the trip is not overshadowed by the recent controversy at home over his private life.

He recently acknowledged that he had fathered a child, his 20th, with the daughter of one of South Africa's leading football officials. This has resulted in a backlash against him from a wide range of South Africans who feel the president should be setting a better example to the nation.

Born into poverty in 1942
Joined ANC aged 17
Imprisoned for 10 years on Robben Island
Fought off allegations of corruption and rape
Proud of Zulu traditions, such as polygamy
Became president in 2009

The HIV/Aids lobby group, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), questioned Mr Zuma's responsibility.

"In a country without a serious HIV epidemic, it might be arguable that his extra-martial affairs are for him and his family alone to resolve. But South Africa has the world's largest HIV epidemic," said a TAC statement.

"The president's recent actions undermine all who are really trying to meet the prevention target of reducing HIV transmission by 50%."

Mr Zuma also has three wives and a fiancee. However, polygamy is an accepted part of Zulu culture, and he takes great pride in his Zulu heritage. He has chosen to bring his third wife, Thobeka Madiba, to London. The title of "first lady" is not one that is used in South Africa.

Prisoner and exile

Mr Zuma is an unlikely figure to have succeeded to the leadership of the governing African National Congress and the presidency of the country. He is not in the same mould as his ANC predecessors - Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Chief Albert Luthuli - all of whom were members of the educated black middle class.

Thobeka Madiba Zuma
Mr Zuma travelled with the most recent of his three wives, Thobeka Madiba

Mr Zuma joined the ANC at the age of 17, after little formal schooling, but he rose to prominence within the organisation after a 10-year prison term on Robben Island and during 15 years spent working for the ANC in exile.

The visit to London will afford Mr Zuma the opportunity to pay homage to Oliver Tambo, who worked tirelessly to hold the ANC together during the three decades when the movement was banned in South Africa.

On Wednesday, Mr Zuma will go to the Tambo family's former home in Muswell Hill in north London. The house was a place of refuge for many South Africans travelling to London in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly those in exile. Mr Zuma will unveil a plaque as the South African government takes ownership of the house.

He will also visit the nearby Alexandra Park School, which is twinned with the Ephes Mamkeli School in Wattville, a South African township near Johannesburg, from where Oliver Tambo hailed and where he is buried.

South Africa's hosting of the World Cup will be highlighted on Thursday when President Zuma goes to Wembley Stadium in London, and takes a penalty on the pitch.

Zimbabwe issue

Aside from these set-piece engagements, Mr Zuma's presidency will be under close scrutiny this week.

He delivered a lacklustre State of the Nation address to parliament in Cape Town last month. He has promised that 2010 will be a year of action, but poverty, job creation and under-development remain the key challenges facing the country, where there is simmering anger over the gap between rich and poor.

Compounding the difficulties of Mr Zuma's first 10 months in office, there has been a spate of infighting within the ANC.

The Zuma presidency is also dogged by the failure of Zimbabwe's power-sharing government to make real headway.

The issue of Zimbabwe will feature in discussions between Mr Zuma and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Downing Street on Thursday.

Britain and South Africa approach the Zimbabwe issue from different perspectives - Britain, and the rest of the EU, want sanctions retained for now; South Africa wants them lifted.

The myriad problems have led some observers to suggest that Jacob Zuma is already something of a "lame duck" president.

The man who promised much after the disappointment of Thabo Mbeki's leadership must still prove that he can deliver.

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