Page last updated at 11:48 GMT, Monday, 20 April 2009 12:48 UK

Zuma 'the victim' to win the day

An ANC supporter wears a T-shirt with ANC president

By Farouk Chothia
BBC News

After more than four decades of white minority rule, most black South Africans naturally sympathise with a victim and they have rallied behind Jacob Zuma in his hard-fought campaign for the presidency.

An opinion poll published earlier this month by Ispos Markinor showed that 77% of likely black voters favour Mr Zuma - the leader of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) - while his support among white voters is negligible - 1%.

South Africans love a victim - someone who has been vilified, ridiculed, humiliated and pilloried
Writer Fred Khumalo

What his critics view as his biggest weaknesses - charges of rape and corruption; a lack of education and a peasant background - his supporters regard as his strengths.

Another Ispos Markinor poll revealed that they were "more likely" to vote for the ANC because of the charges.

As the South African author and journalist Fred Khumalo said: "South Africans love a victim - someone who has been vilified, ridiculed, humiliated and pilloried - who has had his dignity trampled upon by fate or real-life enemies."

War cry

In the eyes of many black South Africans, Mr Zuma was the victim of a political conspiracy hatched by former President Thabo Mbeki and his acolytes to destroy his chances of becoming president.

A church dignitary clad in traditional outfit
Many church leaders have endorsed Jacob Zuma

First, he was charged with corruption - only for a judge to throw the case out on the grounds that the prosecution was "limping"; then, he was charged with rape - only for a judge to rule that he had consensual sex with his accuser and, finally, he was recharged with corruption - only for the chief prosecutor to drop the case after being confronted with evidence showing that there had, in fact, been political interference in the case.

For Mr Zuma's critics, his legal victories amount to, as the renowned cartoonist Zapiro put it, "raping justice", and a sign that South Africa is becoming a banana republic.

Speaking at the opposition Democratic Alliance's (DA) final campaign rally, party leader Helen Zille said: "Only the DA is strong enough to stop Zuma from taking South Africa down the road of a failed state."

For Mr Zuma's supporters, though, the then-Mbeki administration's decision to charge him suggested that South Africa was returning to the dark days of apartheid, when the government abused its power and sought to jail opponents on trumped-up charges.

They responded defiantly.

"We are prepared to die for Zuma," the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general-secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, said.

And Mr Zuma signalled that he was prepared to lead the battle.

"Bring me my machine gun," was his war-cry as he revived the spirit of the anti-apartheid struggle in his campaign for the presidency.

I love education because I know how it feels to be uneducated, having been there myself
Jacob Zuma

On Wednesday, though, Mr Zuma's militant rhetoric will fall silent, as he votes in South Africa's fourth democratic election for what was once Africa's most iconic liberation movement, the ANC.

Polls show it will shed support to the DA and a breakaway party, the Congress of the People, but it will still win more than 60% of the vote.

Although he could have voted in Johannesburg or Durban, Mr Zuma has chosen to cast his ballot in his birthplace, the village in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal province.

The choice is intended to show that a herd boy with humble origins can reach the most powerful office in the land.

Church visits

And many poor black South Africans - who reverentially refer to Mr Zuma by his clan name, Msholozi - have already been saying: "If he can succeed, why can't we?"

Jacob Zuma
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has struck a different note from many black voters

In a shrewd move, Mr Zuma made education a central theme of his campaign, promising to give them the schooling he was denied as a child in apartheid South Africa.

He said that during his first five years in office, 60% of schools would become non-fee paying and South Africa would, as the ANC's manifesto put it, be "liberated from illiteracy".

"I love education because I know how it feels to be uneducated, having been there myself," Mr Zuma said on the campaign trail.

"But when you put your mind to something, you succeed. I did it; I am educated today."

Although a former communist, he has backed up his emphasis on education by portraying himself as avowedly religious.

He has frequently visited churches, either to pray or to minister.

This was an attempt by Mr Zuma to regain the moral high-ground after being dogged by sex and financial scandals through his campaign.

One church declared Mr Zuma an "honorary pastor"; another prayed for him.

"Bless him, keep him protected, guide and lead him," pastor Ray McCauley of the Rhema Pentecostal church said from the pulpit.

This struck a chord with many black South Africans. It showed Mr Zuma was just like them - fallible, and in need of prayer and redemption; not punishment and retribution.

But South Africa's most prominent clergyman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, struck a different note.

In the weeks leading up to the election, he said Mr Zuma should be tried for corruption.

"If he is innocent as he has claimed to be, for goodness sake, let it be a court of law that says so... at the present time, I can't pretend to be looking forward to having him as my president."

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