S.Africa's Zuma: Troubled leader heads towards exit
(FILES) This file photo taken on July 5, 2017 shows South African President Jacob Zuma gesturing as he gives his closing remarks during the closing session of the South African ruling party African National Congress policy conference in Johannesburg. A South African court on December 13, 2017 reprimanded President Jacob Zuma as "seriously reckless" after he challenged the recommendations of the country's anti-corruption watchdog for a graft probe against him. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP)
(AFP) - South Africa's jovial leader Jacob Zuma is a former herdboy who fought in the anti-apartheid struggle and has held onto the presidency despite a plethora of scandals.
Now aged 75, he has survived by building a network of loyal African National Congress (ANC) lawmakers and officials, and by trading on the party's legacy as the organisation that ended white-minority rule.
Among the stains on his presidency have been allegedly fostering a culture of government corruption and leading the country into a quagmire of low growth and record unemployment.
He will stand down as ANC party chief at a conference starting Saturday but remain as national president ahead of the 2019 election.
As leader of the late Nelson Mandela's party, which has won every election since South Africa became a democracy in 1994, Zuma easily won a five-year term in 2014.
The son of a domestic worker, he has "a very strong appeal" to the working class and the poor, says Sdumo Dlamini, head of the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), an ANC ally.
"He is a people's person and he has grown through the ranks of the working class. He knows the suffering of the ordinary folk."
- Grassroots support -
Born on April 12, 1942, in the Nkandla rural hamlet in KwaZulu-Natal province, Zuma had a rapid political ascent.
Popularly referred to as "JZ", he commands loyalty from ANC grassroots supporters awed by his journey from uneducated youth to president, with a 10-year stint as an apartheid-era political prisoner on Robben Island along the way.
When he took the reins of the ANC in 2007 in a putsch against ex-president Thabo Mbeki, Zuma inherited a party riddled with divisions.
Tensions have only deepened as the ANC has been accused of losing its moral compass.
As criticism of his reign mounted, Zuma has maintained a cheerful public facade, often chuckling when allegations against him are repeated.
But he has been significantly weakened as increasingly senior ANC figures have criticised him in public.
He was forced into a humiliating climbdown in 2015 after firing a minister of finance and appointing a man widely seen as a stooge.
As the national currency, the rand, went into freefall, Zuma bowed to pressure and re-appointed Pravin Gordhan, an admired former finance minister, to the key post.
In a tussle that symbolised his tenacious grip over the ANC, Zuma finally got the finance minister of his choice in March this year when Gordhan was ousted in a midnight reshuffle.
In 2016, Zuma agreed to pay back some of the public money spent on his private residence at Nkandla -- backing down in the face of a stinging Constitutional Court rebuke.
He has also been accused of corrupt dealings with the wealthy Gupta family, even allegedly granting them influence over his cabinet appointments.
- Zulu warrior gear -
Zuma's private life is as colourful as his political career.
A proud traditionalist, he often swaps tailored suits for full leopard-pelt Zulu warrior gear, engaging in energetic ground-stomping tribal dances during ceremonies in his village.
At ANC rallies, he is often the first to break into tuneful song.
In the past, he relished leading supporters in the rousing anti-apartheid struggle song "Umshini Wami" (Bring Me My Machine Gun), which became his signature tune.
The teetotaller and non-smoker has four wives and at least 20 children.
He joined the ANC as a teenager, becoming the strategic and ruthless head of intelligence in the underground organisation.
Before taking office, Zuma dismayed the nation during his 2006 rape trial when he told the court he had showered after having unprotected sex with his young HIV-positive accuser to avoid, he said, contracting the virus.
The claim incensed safe-sex campaigners -- not least because Zuma was head of the country's national AIDS council at the time.
Zuma was acquitted of rape but is often mocked in newspaper cartoons and depicted with a shower nozzle sprouting from his bald head.
At Mandela's memorial service in 2013, he was loudly booed by ordinary South Africans in front of world leaders.
During Zuma's time in power, South Africa has also been rocked by increasing social unrest over the failure to provide housing and basic services.
Zuma is still fighting a court order that could reinstate corruption charges against him over 783 payments linked to a multi-billion dollar arms deal in the 1990s.
He is accused of seeking to usher former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma into the ANC leadership spot to protect himself from prosecution when he leaves office before the 2019 election.
© Agence France-Presse