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Jacob Zuma: From prisoner to president

  • Story Highlights
  • ANC leader Jacob Zuma became South Africa's president in May, 2009
  • Controversial Zuma enjoys cult-like popularity among many ANC supporters
  • Opponents accuse him of corruption, undermining rule of law
  • Zuma a hero of struggle against apartheid; served 10 years in prison
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(CNN) -- Jacob Zuma was inaugurated as South African president in May 2009 after his African National Congress party secured a landslide victory in April elections.

South African president Jacob Zuma addressing the U.N. General Assembly this week

South African president Jacob Zuma addressing the U.N. General Assembly this week

His predecessors include Thablo Mbeki and South Africa's first black president Nelson Mandela.

As a prisoner of South Africa's apartheid regime, Jacob Zuma spent 10 years incarcerated alongside Mandela on Robben Island.

But while Mandela at 90 remains an almost universally loved symbol of the struggle against white rule, Zuma is the most controversial and divisive political figure of his generation, defying a string of scandals and repeated allegations of corruption in his rise to power. Video Watch a report on Zuma's challenges »

Among South Africa's poor black majority, Zuma's popularity reached cult-like proportions with his election campaign consolidating his status as a man of the people.

But the rise of Zuma to the presidential post rankled those who accuse him of playing the populist and undermining the rule of law.

Just two weeks before the presidential elections, South African prosecutors dropped more than 700 outstanding counts of corruption and fraud leveled at Zuma over a multi-billion dollar arms deal; a decision which opposition politicians said was politically influenced. Photo See photos of the April electon »

Zuma claimed the prosecutors' decision had cleared him of any suspicion of wrongdoing. "My conscience is clear. I have not committed any crime against the state or the people of South Africa," he said.

Corruption allegations have dogged Zuma since 2001. In 2005 his former financial adviser Schabir Shaik was jailed for 15 years for soliciting bribes and using Zuma's political influence to benefit his businesses.

South African president Thabo Mbeki subsequently dismissed Zuma as his deputy, prompting a split within the party that culminated with Zuma ousting Mbeki from the ANC presidency last year.

The rift also served to enhance Zuma's popularity among core ANC supporters. Whereas Mbeki was considered aloof and disconnected, Zuma was seen as a politician in touch with the lives and problems of ordinary South Africans, commanding loyal support from leftist factions and trade unions.

Raised in poverty, Zuma taught himself to read and write. He is admired for practising the Zulu traditions of his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, playing the anti-apartheid anthem "Bring Me My Machine Gun" at party rallies.

He remains a hero of the struggle against white rule, jailed for conspiring to overthrow the government and later serving as the ANC's intelligence chief during 15 years in exile in Swaziland, Mozambique and Zambia.

Zuma's personal life has also come under scrutiny. As a Zulu traditionalist, Zuma has several wives. In 2007, Time magazine reported that Zuma had 17 children by nine different women. In 2006 he was acquitted of a rape charge, but admitted in the trial that he'd had unprotected sex with a woman who was HIV positive. Zuma said he had showered afterwards to minimize the risk of infection.


Zuma's leadership of the ANC transformed the landscape of South African politics by prompting a breakaway by Mbeki loyalists to form the opposition Congress of the People -- or Cope. "Stop Zuma" was also an election slogan of the official opposition Democratic Alliance.

Four months into Zuma's presidency, the Democratic Alliance is still pushing for the him to face the corruption charges which were dropped weeks before the April election.

All About South AfricaPoliticsAfrican Politics

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