Downfall of a colourful anti-apartheid hero

JOHANNESBURG • The private life of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma is as colourful as his political career. The teetotaller and non-smoker has four wives and at least 20 children.

A proud traditionalist, he was fond of swopping tailored suits for full leopard-pelt Zulu warrior gear, and engaging in energetic ground-stomping tribal dances during ceremonies in his village.

At party rallies, he was 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 former herdboy joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1959 and fought in the anti-apartheid struggle. He was imprisoned on Robben Island for 10 years along with Mr Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders.

Before taking office, Mr Zuma dismayed the nation during his 2006 rape trial when he told the court that he had showered after having unprotected sex with his young HIV-positive accuser to "avoid contracting the virus".

The claim incensed safe-sex campaigners - not least because Mr Zuma was head of the country's Aids council at the time.

Mr Zuma was acquitted of rape, but was often mocked in newspaper cartoons and depicted with a shower nozzle sprouting from his bald head.

At Mr Mandela's memorial service in 2013, he was loudly booed by ordinary South Africans in front of world leaders.

Now aged 75, he clung on to the presidency for as long as he could, despite a string of scandals.

He survived by building a network of loyal 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 was perception that he fostered a culture of government corruption. He is also accused of having led the country into a quagmire of low growth, huge debt and record unemployment.

Born on April 12, 1942, in Nkandla, a rural hamlet in KwaZulu-Natal province, the uneducated youth rose through the ranks of the then banned ANC, and was popularly referred to as "JZ".

When he took the reins of the ANC in 2007 in a party putsch against former president Thabo Mbeki, he inherited a movement riddled with divisions.

Tensions have only deepened as the ANC has been accused of losing its moral compass.

As criticism of his reign mounted, Mr Zuma maintained a cheerful public facade, often chuckling when allegations against him were repeated.

But he was significantly weakened as, increasingly, senior ANC figures criticised him in public.

During Mr Zuma's time in power, South Africa was rocked by increasing social unrest over the failure to provide housing and basic services to the poorest in society.

Mr Zuma is also still fighting a court order that could reinstate corruption charges against him over 783 alleged payments linked to a multi-billion-dollar arms deal in the 1990s.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2018, with the headline 'Downfall of a colourful anti-apartheid hero'. Print Edition | Subscribe