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Jacob Zuma: from poverty to presidency

Subry Govender, Johannesburg / lw May 17, 2016

South Africa's president has been caught up in one crisis after another ever since he was controversially elected in May 2009. DW takes a look at the man behind the headlines.

Südafrika Kapstadt Jacob Zuma Präsident
Image: Imago

A fight broke out in South Africa's parliament today as members of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party were yet again forcibly removed by security guards. Opposition law makers were booted out after refusing to let President Zuma speak, arguing they do not recognise him as president in the face of two court cases against him. Zuma was supposed to be explaining himself in parliament today after a similar incident with the EFF two weeks ago.

This latest political showdown has highlighted increasing tensions over Zuma's presidency. On April 30, the Pretoria High Court found that the withdrawal of fraud, corruption and racketeering charges against him by the National Prosecution Authority (NPA) just before he took office in 2009 was "irrational". In a more recent scandal, the Constitutional Court found that Zuma had violated the constitution by not carrying out the recommendation of the Public Protector to pay back the millions of rand he spent on upgrades at his homestead in the rural village of Nkandla.

Broken promises?

But these court decisions against him are just the latest in a series of blemishes that have tarred Zuma's image. They include the police massacre of 34 miners in Marikana; the public spat over claims that the Gupta family - powerful businessmen and friends of Zuma - had tried to influence the selection of his Ministers; and of course the continuing row over the nearly 250 million rand (14 million euros / $16 million) of taxpayers' money spent on his Nkandla homestead.

Zuma's homestead in Nkandla
Zuma was found to have used taxpayers' money for upgrades to his home in Nkandla including a swimming pool and amphitheaterImage: Reuters/R. Ward

So, how did Zuma get to this point? Before his election in 2009, he promised to listen to South African citizens. "Firstly I think it is important in my view that a head of state must know what the people are saying. And you cannot know that by just reading surveys," he said at the time. "You can know it if you meet with the people, they talk to you, you are able to appreciate their own positions and their situations, so I will never change."

Poor childhood

Born on the 12th of April 1942 in the village of Nkandla in the Zululand region of the KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa, Zuma comes from a very humble background, unlike many previous South African presidents.

A herd boy living in poverty, he was forced to drop out of school at an early age after his father passed away and after his mother moved to the coastal city of Durban, more than 250 kilometres away (155 miles), to work as a domestic servant. While visiting his mother, he became aware of the gross violation of human rights and the discrimination suffered by black people. "In some places where she would be working, visitors would not be allowed. If I was to sleep I would have to be smuggled in at night and smuggled out very early in the morning," he said.

Becoming political

Zuma's political awareness took root in his home village of Nkandla when he used to listen to elders talking about the Zulu people's wars against the British colonialists. He was also influenced by his older brother, a trade unionist and a member of the ANC. At 16 Zuma was told he was too young to join the ANC. But a year later, he joined the party after saying that he was 18 and was ready to become an active member.

When he turned 22 in 1962, Zuma joined the underground movement after the ANC was banned in 1960. He became a member of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. But within a year he was arrested and charged with trying to overthrow the government. He was sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island. It was there that he completed his matriculation with the help of other political prisoners.

After his release he continued with his underground work, and in 1975 went into exile to continue with the work of Umkhonto we Sizwe and other ANC structures.

Jacob Zuma against a black background
74-year old Zuma has been married six times and currently has four wives and 21 childrenImage: Reuters/M. Hutchings

Commitment to black rights

He was passionate about the liberation of the black people from minority oppression. "That's what deepened with time. The commitment was deeper than ever. That was the kind of life and experience that I have gone through," Zuma said.

Zuma was one of the first leaders who returned to the country after the ANC was made legal again and after Nelson Mandela was released in 1990. He played a significant role in the negotiations for the new South Africa and in ending the conflict between members of the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party in KwaZulu-Natal and the Johannesburg region.

Jacob Zuma and Nelson Mandela at talks with the African Union in 1993
Jacob Zuma (third from left) with Nelson Mandela and other ANC party members at a meeting with the African Union in 1993Image: Imago

Path to politics

After 1994 he served the new South Africa as a government minister in KwaZulu-Natal and later elected as Thabo Mbeki's Deputy President.

But his new political life was scarred by allegations of fraud and corruption and one of his benefactors at that time, Schabir Shaik, was sentenced to 15 years in jail after being found guilty of paying Zuma millions of rand in return for government tenders. Although Zuma rejected all claims against him, Mbeki sacked him as his deputy in 2005.

This led to a vicious battle between Mbeki and Zuma and their supporters. With the support of Julius Malema, now the leader of the EFF, and other ANC leaders, Zuma toppled Mbeki as the president of the ANC in December 2007.

Overcoming scandals

While Zuma was preparing to take over from Mbeki as president of the country, fraud and corruption charges and a rape charge were instituted against him. The fraud and corruption charges were withdrawn and he was found not guilty of rape just before he was elected president in 2009.

Demonstrators wearing red protest against Zuma
Demonstrators protesting against Zuma's presidency at a rally earlier this yearImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/D. Farrell

Speaking to DW in 2009, Zuma vowed: "I will remain the same person. I will never change. The majority of the people join the ANC because they believe in its policies and programmes. If there are individuals who believe they can join the ANC to promote their own interests then we will deal with them."

Once elected, Jacob Zuma came across as a leader who not only exuded values and principles but also someone who was committed and dedicated to free the majority of the people from the ravages of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

But the question that is being posed now on a regular basis is whether Zuma is living up to his pledges.

Calls for resignation

Many people, including former struggle stalwarts and members of his own ruling ANC, believe he has betrayed the ANC's struggle for the creation of an economically and socially-thriving, non-racial democratic country.

Matthews Phoswa, a former Treasurer General of the ANC and a former Premier of the Phumulanga Province, believes that Zuma has transgressed the moral and ethical values of the party. Like a number of other high ranking ANC members, Phoswa says Zuma should do the right thing by stepping down voluntarily, instead of being pushed out by the organization.

"I have said repeatedly that it will be very honourable for the president to step down. You don't need people to push you, you don't need the courts to find you guilty, there are ethical issues here," Phoswa said. "The culture of immunity is sneaking into our politics and we should fight it. You don't have to wait until you have been found guilty to go, you must go on ethical and moral issues."

With three years until Zuma's term in office comes to an end, many South Africans are wondering whether Zuma can turn things around, or whether these latest scandals will mean the end of the road for the president.