Johannesburg, South Africa | AFP | The normally calm and often jovial Jacob Zuma is a former herdboy who fought in the anti-apartheid struggle and clung on to the presidency for as long as he could, despite a string of scandals.
Now aged 75, he 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 which ended when he resigned Wednesday 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.
He stood down as ANC party chief at a conference in December but refused a party request to stand down as head of state a week-and-a-half ago, prompting his party to recall him.
On Wednesday Zuma bowed to the inevitable and resigned “with immediate effect”.
As leader of the late Nelson Mandela’s ANC party, which has won every election since South Africa became a democracy in 1994, Zuma easily won a second five-year term in 2014.
The son of a domestic worker, he had “a very strong appeal” to the working class and the poor, said 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 Nkandla, a rural hamlet in KwaZulu-Natal province, Zuma’s extraordinary journey inspires his loyal grassroots supporters.
Popularly referred to as “JZ”, the uneducated youngster rose through the ranks of the then-banned ANC, serving a 10-year stint as an apartheid-era political prisoner on Robben Island along the way.
After fleeing into exile, he became the party’s feared head of intelligence, charged with dealing with traitors and informants.
When he took the reins of the ANC in 2007 in a party putsch against ex-president Thabo Mbeki, Zuma 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, 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.
He was forced into a humiliating climbdown in 2015 after firing a respected finance minister and appointing a man widely seen as a stooge.
As the national rand currency went into free fall, Zuma bowed to pressure and re-appointed Pravin Gordhan, an admired former finance minister, to the crucial post.