Jacob Zuma: Left-winger with the common touch has beaten all odds

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The Independent Online

His anthem is "Bring Me My Machine Gun", and with the nickname J-Z you might be forgiven for mistaking him for a rapper. But this is Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, the Zulu left-winger with the common touch who looks set to be the next president of South Africa after staging the mother of all political comebacks.

Just two years ago, he had been sacked as deputy president and was battling allegations of rape and corruption. His career in public office had been thoroughly written off.

Although he was eventually acquitted on the rape charges, women voters were thought unlikely to forgive him for the assertion that his alleged victim had been asking for sex because she said goodnight wearing nothing but a kanga the traditional full-length wrap and it was his duty as a Zulu man to not leave an aroused woman unfulfilled.

Aids campaigners in the African country where one in nine are infected with HIV were speechless when Mr Zuma testified in court that he had taken a shower after unprotected sex to reduce the risk of infection.

And the rumbling corruption charges around a multibillion-dollar arms deal sent a gloomy message to the millions of black South Africans still living in impoverished townships and waiting to feel the economic benefits of the end of apartheid.

But Mr Zuma has shrugged off the controversy and won a coveted place in the hearts of congress members. He swept the primary votes in the local branches, won the endorsement of the ANC Women's League, and is seen as a shoo-in when delegates finally get around to choosing the party's new leader in Polokwane. That would leave the 65-year-old as the unrivalled favourite to succeed Thabo Mbeki as South Africa's president when the country heads to the polls in 2009.

As a Zulu, he would also represent a break with post-apartheid presidents Mandela and Mbeki, both of whom hail from the Xhosa tribe. Mr Zuma regularly sheds his suit for the tribal regalia of a cowhide and shield when he returns to his village, and in Johannesburg he has been spotted wearing T-shirts with the slogan "100 percent Zuluboy" emblazoned across his chest.

Brought up in KwaZulu Natal, Zuma joined the ANC when he was just 17. As an active member of the party's military wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe, it was only a matter of time before he was caught by South Africa's apartheid security forces and imprisoned for 10 years on the notorious Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela. When he was released, he went into exile in Swaziland and then Mozambique, but was one of the first party bigwigs to return home when the ban on the ANC was lifted in 1990.

While Mr Mbeki is seen as a safe pair of hands for Africa's biggest economy by business leaders, Mr Zuma who was recently pictured on the front page of a national newspaper wearing a black cowboy hat and brandishing a red hammer and sickle is a friend of the increasingly vocal trade unions. But his charisma and effervescent grin are in marked contrast to the aloof and often dour demeanour of President Mbeki, while his lack of formal schooling differs sharply from his boss's intellectual background, and has helped him capture the hearts of the ANC rank-and-file.

The one thorn in his side is the corruption scandal that refuses to die. Mr Zuma's financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, was convicted in 2005 of soliciting a bribe for him in a lucrative arms deal. Although the case against the ANC number two was dropped last year, prosecutors last weekend filed court papers containing what they said was fresh evidence against Mr Zuma.

Any revival of the fraud case could yet scupper Mr Zuma's ascent to the pinnacle of South African power. That would come as a relief to those like the Nobel prizewinner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the country's most powerful moral voices, who has urged the ANC to shun Mr Zuma and "not choose someone of whom most of us would be ashamed".