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Profile: South Africa's President Jacob Zuma

Jacob Zuma
Jacob Zuma is a charismatic populist with top liberation struggle credentials

Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma has overcome numerous obstacles to become president of South Africa.

He was born into poverty, went into exile to fight white minority rule and has had to battle accusations of rape and corruption during a bitter power struggle.

But his poor roots, charisma and strength in adversity partly explain his enduring popularity.

Before he became the country's leader in May 2009, attention focused on his numerous legal problems.

But his private life has since grabbed the headlines.

The 67-year-old proud polygamist - following a Zulu tradition - has taken a third wife but has come in for far more criticism after admitting fathering a child with another woman.

Popular touch

Barely four years ago, his political career was all but written off when he was simultaneously battling allegations of rape and corruption - double charges which would have sunk the career of many politicians.

Mr Zuma was acquitted of rape, but the corruption case proved harder to shake off.

Jacob Zuma with his third wife Thobeka Madiba
Jacob Zuma is proud of his Zulu traditions, including polygamy

He always denied charges of money-laundering and racketeering, stemming from a controversial $5bn (£3.4bn) 1999 arms deal and had said he would resign if found guilty of wrong-doing.

His supporters always said the accusations against their leader were politically motivated and this was eventually backed up by phone-tap evidence.

The charges were thrown out just weeks before the elections which saw him become president.

Mr Zuma's supporters say his charismatic popular touch is a refreshing contrast to former President Thabo Mbeki, who was seen as rather aloof.

"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, from whom Mr Zuma wrested control of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in 2007 after a bitter struggle.

It was allies of then-President Mbeki who were accused of interfering in Mr Zuma's prosecution.

School of hard knocks

Mr Zuma's modest upbringing is seen as a major factor in his enduing popularity among poor South Africans.

One of the many songs praising South Africa's new leader runs:

My mother was a kitchen girl
My father was a garden boy
That's why I'm president.

ZUMA TIMELINE
June 2005: Sacked as deputy president
October 2005: Charged with corruption
December 2005: Charged with rape
April 2006: Acquitted of rape charges
September 2006: Corruption case collapses
December 2007: Elected ANC president; re-charged with corruption shortly afterwards
6 April 2009: Prosecutors drop charges after receiving new phone-tap evidence
22 April 2009: ANC win the election
9 May 2009:Zuma sworn in as president

Born in 1942 and brought up by his widowed mother in Zululand, Mr 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 imprisoned for 10 years on the notorious Robben Island, alongside Nelson Mandela.

Mr Zuma is said to have helped keep up morale among the incarcerated ANC grandees with songs and impromptu theatre.

The Zulu traditionalist subsequently left South Africa, living first in Mozambique, then Zambia, as he rose through the ANC ranks to the executive committee.

He became one of the first leaders to return home in 1990 - when the ban on the ANC was removed - 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.

Aids message

Throughout his political career, Mr Zuma, popularly known as "JZ", has honed his image as a champion of the poor and oppressed.

He enjoys strong support among trade unionists and the communist party - an ANC ally - as they believe he will redistribute South Africa's wealth in favour of the poor.

Jacob Zuma (l) shakes hands with Thabo Mbeki
Mr Zuma (l) won a bitter fight against Thabo Mbeki (r) to lead the ANC

They say Mr Mbeki was too business-friendly and had presided over "jobless growth".

However, Mr Zuma has not changed South Africa's economic policy and has managed to steer the country out of its first recession for 17 years.

Some fear that Mr Zuma's populism could go too far and are concerned by his habit of singing the apartheid-era anthem - "Umshini wami" (Bring Me My Machine-Gun) - at his rallies.

However, he has performed this song far less since becoming head of state.

Like many leaders of his Zulu community, Mr Zuma is a polygamist.

He has been married at least five times.

He wed Sizakele Khumalo in 1973 and took Nompumelelo Ntuli as his wife in 2008. His most recent wife is 35-year-old Thobeka Madiba, described by the South African media as a "Durban socialite".

They were married in January at a traditional ceremony at which Mr Zuma wore leopard skins, accompanied by white sports shoes.

He is divorced from Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and Kate Mantsho Zuma died in 2000.

In 2006, Mr Zuma was acquitted of raping an HIV-positive family friend.

But his statement during the trial that he showered after unprotected sex with the woman to guard against possible infection provoked criticism and ridicule.

In February 2010, he admitted that he had had a baby with the daughter of another family friend - his 20th child.

He was widely criticised and accused of undermining the government's HIV/Aids policy, which urges people to be faithful and use condoms.

Nonetheless, his popularity seems undiminished, especially among his fellow Zulus.



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