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Last Updated: Friday, 20 October 2006, 15:23 GMT 16:23 UK
Jacob Zuma: Eyeing the top job?
By Mike Wooldridge
BBC News, Johannesburg

In South Africa today you get the sense that, despite everything, former Deputy President Jacob Zuma's political star is rising once more.

Jacob Zuma
Jacob Zuma denies seeking the presidency

It would have been easy to write off his political career not long ago, as the African National Congress stalwart faced rape and corruption trials and was dismissed as deputy president.

Many in South Africa and around the world did just that.

Mr Zuma was acquitted of rape and a judge struck off the corruption case against him but these developments in themselves did not turn his political fortunes around.

His admission that he had unprotected sex with the HIV-positive woman at the centre of the rape case and statement that he showered afterwards to guard against possible infection provoked strong criticism.

His public apology appeared to do little to dilute the charge that Mr Zuma's judgement and integrity are questionable.

'Media talk'

Much of the political conversation again revolves around whether he could succeed Thabo Mbeki as president of the ANC next year and, if the present practice continues, be the movement's presidential candidate in the 2009 election.

One political observer told me there was now a battle under way for the soul of the ANC

At least that is everyone else's political conversation - not Mr Zuma's own.

We met him first at his house in one of Johannesburg's smart suburbs and before the coffee was poured he insisted that it was the media talking about his supposed presidential ambitions, not him.

But what about his supporters who champion him as a man of the people, as the leader they believe would take steps to redistribute South Africa's wealth in favour of the poor and in ways they feel the present government is failing to do?

Mr Zuma says if they are publicly promoting him as South Africa's next leader that is based on the media talk.

Legendary

Answering a string of challenging questions about the leadership issue on Have Your Say, Mr Zuma sticks as firmly as he can to the line that he is not canvassing as a "candidate" for the ANC presidency because this is not how it works.

Zuma supporters outside a Pietermaritzburg courthouse
Zuma's supporters came out in strength during his trials

But he makes it equally clear that if the ANC were to choose him he would do the job.

So what sort of president would he make?

Even some of his critics concede that he has the popular touch - and many analysts say that as President Mbeki has acquired something of an image of remoteness, Mr Zuma's more charismatic public manner has stood in contrast.

Mr Zuma's life story also has certain legendary qualities about it.

Brought up by his widowed mother in Zululand, he had no formal schooling. But, influenced by a member of the family who was a trade unionist, he became active in politics and joined the ANC by the time he was 17.

Later convicted of conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government, he was imprisoned for 10 years on the notorious Robben Island.

Political manoeuvring

Like so many other activists who were there, he talks of the considerable influence of this period in making up for the education he was denied in his childhood and in shaping the political loyalties of the rest of his life.

President Thabo Mbeki (r) with his predecessor Nelson Mandela
Analysts see President Mbeki as an increasingly remote figure

My sense is that this could be important in the manoeuvring that takes place over the coming months.

One political observer told me there was now a battle under way for the soul of the ANC.

If that is true, the controversies that continue to swirl around Jacob Zuma and his apparent political resurgence are a central element in it.

But he is giving little away about a question that will be crucial in determining his political future - just how far would he go in steering the policies of one of Africa's few economic giants to satisfy the wishes of those who back him most strongly today?


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