Profile: South Africa's President Jacob Zuma

President Jacob Zuma in Jan 2012

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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 70-year-old proud polygamist - following a Zulu tradition - has taken a fourth wife but came in for far more criticism after admitting fathering a child with another woman.

Popular touch

His political future was 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.

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.

Woman in South African township Some poor South Africans say Mr Zuma has done nothing to help them

His supporters always said the accusations against their leader were politically motivated and on 6 April 2009, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) decided to drop the charges, citing political interference.

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 enduring popularity among poor South Africans.

His rise to power earned him the name "the people's president".

But over the years his populist nature has been criticised and his former allies, including ANC former Youth League leader Julius Malema, have repeatedly said he lacked leadership and decisiveness.

Some also say he has failed to tackle corruption among members of the ANC at all levels - from government members to local councillors.

Jacob Zuma's trials and tribulations

  • 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 wins the election and Zuma becomes president
  • December 2010: Announces new Aids policy, drastic increase in roll-out of ARV drugs
  • 18 December 2012: Re-elected ANC leader with an overwhelming majority

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. It was this same dancing and comical nature that endeared him to the hearts of ordinary South Africans in the run-up to the 2009 elections.

After being freed from prison, the Zulu traditionalist 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.

Zulu warrior

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

While trying to oust Mr Mbeki, he enjoyed strong support among trade unionists and the communist party - an ANC ally - as they believed he would redistribute South Africa's wealth in favour of the poor.

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

However, Mr Zuma has not changed South Africa's economic policy.

Some of his erstwhile allies, such as Mr Malema, have since dropped him, accusing him of not doing enough to help the poor.

Like many leaders of his Zulu community, Mr Zuma is a polygamist. He has been married at least six times and has 21 children.

He wed Sizakele Khumalo in 1973 and took Nompumelelo Ntuli as his wife in 2008.

Mr Zuma has been married twice since becoming president. His most recent wife is Bongi Ngema, with whom he has a seven-year-old child.

They were married in April 2012 at a lavish ceremony accompanied by a traditional ceremony in Zuma's home village, Nkandla, in KwaZulu Natal.

The president wore the attire of a traditional Zulu warrior - leopard skin - and carried a shield.

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

He is divorced from African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, while Kate Mantsho Zuma committed suicide in 2000.

Aids message

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.

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

More than five million South Africans are HIV-positive - about 10% of the total population.

But he won over many critics and activists when he announced a major overhaul to the country's Aids policy in December 2010 - this has seen a drastic increase of the roll-out of life-saving anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs.

Under President Zuma's new policy, the number of HIV-positive people getting drugs has more than doubled from 678,500 to 1.5 million.

Mr Mbeki had denied the link between HIV and Aids and his government had always said ARV drugs were too expensive to avail to all who needed them.

At the ANC's elective conference in December 2012, Mr Zuma staved off a challenge from his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, for the leadership of the party.

He won despite allegations that he has plundered the public purse for his private homestead and failed to act to prevent the August 2012 Marikana mine massacre.

His re-election shows that it is unwise to write off the man whose Zulu name, Gedleyihlekisa, means one who smiles while grinding his enemies.

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