Observers have quipped that the greatest mystery surrounding South Africa’s presidential elections this week was not the identity of the victor Jacob Zuma had the job sewn up when he seized control of the country’s ruling party in 2007 but rather his first lady. Zuma, who will almost certainly be confirmed in the coming days, is an unabashed polygamist. That’s just one of the personal quirks causing some foreigners to shudder at the prospect of Zuma assuming control of one of Africa’s most successful democracies. An uneducated freedom fighter who hoisted himself out of poverty and served a prison sentence alongside Nelson Mandela under South Africa’s Apartheid regime, Zuma is heralded as a canny politician whose rough-hewn populism his unofficial song is the Zulu anthem “Bring Me My Machine Gun”, which he’s been known to sing at jam-packed rallies has proven an irresistible lure for many. But his career has been plagued by accusations of corruption and rape, and a succession of gaffes that betrayed streaks of homophobia and casual misogyny . A 2008 TIME 100 honoree and finalist for this year’s list, Zuma may not be the prototypical figure to restore order to the beleaguered party of Nelson Mandelaor to guide a nation beset by poverty, violence and AIDS. But he’s the man South Africa chose.
Read Zuma’s 2008 TIME 100 bio
Born in 1942 in the remote, poverty-stricken area of Inkandla, South Africa, to a policeman father who died when he was 3. His mother later found work as a domestic servant.
Received no formal schooling and, by 15, was working odd jobs full-time to help support his family. Joined the anti-Apartheid African National Congress at 17.
A Zulu traditionalist, he has six wives, and at least 17 children by nine women, prompting speculation over which wife will become First Lady if he is elected.
Was arrested and convicted of trying to overthrow the government in 1964 and sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island, where he reportedly cheered up fellow inmates like Nelson Mandela with songs and impromptu theatre.
After his release from prison, Zuma helped organize the underground resistance movement. He fled the country in 1975 to escape arrest and eventually became the ANC’s intelligence chief at the party’s headquarters in Zambia.
Appointed deputy president in 1999 by Thabo Mbeki, who became South Africa’s president after Nelson Mandela retired in 1998. Their relationship soured in 2005, when Mbeki sacked Zuma following a corruption scandal in which Schabir Shaik, a close Zuma associate, was found guilty of corruption and fraud for paying him some $180,000 in bribes.
Following Shaik’s conviction, Zuma was accused of money-laundering and racketeering, stemming from a controversial $5 billion arms deal he brokered in 1999. Zuma denied any wrongdoing, and said the charges were politically motivated. A judge dismissed the case in 2008 due to a legal technicality, but the National Prosecuting Agency appealed the ruling. Mbeki would eventually resign as president following allegations that he interfered with the case. The corruption charges were dropped April 9, 2009, just weeks before South Africa’s April 22 national elections.
Acquitted in 2006 of charges that he raped the daughter of a family friend; he maintains the sex was consensual. His testimony that he took a shower after having unprotected sex with the accuser, who he knew was HIV positive, in order to protect himself from infection prompted outrage in the scientific community, not the least because Zuma once served as head of South Africa’s National AIDS Council.
Known for his charm and ease at massive rallies, Zuma has been criticized for pandering to popular prejudices like homophobia; he once boasted that when he was a boy, he would “knock out” gay people.
Regularly lampooned by the country’s most popular syndicated cartoon strip, Da Zuma Code, which depicts him as a ruthless buffoon. In 2007, he filed more than a dozen lawsuits against various media outlets and figures, including cartoonist Jonathan “Zapiro” Shapiro, who once depicted Zuma preparing to rape the justice system in the form of a blindfolded woman pinned down by his political allies in the ANC, the Communist Party and the ANC Youth League.
“There is no cloud above my head there is not even a mist.”
On corruption charges against him being dropped before this week’s elections.
“There are plenty of politicians who have mistresses and children that they hide so as to pretend they’re monogamous. I prefer to be open. I love my wives and I’m proud of my children.”
Discussing his polygamy in a television interview.
“Same-sex marriage is a disgrace to the nation and to God. When I was growing up, [a homosexual] would not have stood in front of me. I would knock him out.”
“It would minimize the risk of catching the disease.”
Explaining, during his 2006 rape trial in Johannesburg, why he showered after sex with an HIV-infected woman.
“When she came to me in a skirt … well, it told me something.”
Arguing that the sexual episode that led to his rape charge was consensual.
“The majority in this country have not seen anything wrong with Zuma. I go with the overwhelming feeling of this country. If the majority say, ‘Zuma, do this,’ I will do it.”
On his popularity.
“We did all the things boys should do. Hunting birds, swimming in the big rivers, fighting with sticks what we call in Zulu the man-making. It was absolutely wonderful. The teaching of respect was deep how to live in a community, how to do the things a man ought to do, like propose love to girls. But critically, I was taught bravery. A man must be brave. Nothing must defeat you.”
Recalling his upbringing.
“Mr. Zuma can charm the birds out of the trees.”
On the President’s charisma.
“Many party elders are horrified that such a man should step into shoes once occupied by Nelson Mandela, but they can’t deny that he has achieved an African rarity: the peaceful overthrow of a powerful incumbent.”
Rian Malan, an award-winning South African author, on Zuma’s accomplishments.
“We are prepared to die for Zuma. Not only that, we are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma.”
Juluis Malema, the leader of the African National Congress’s Youth League, at a rally in June 2008.
“Justice is the name of my next wife.”
A slogan referencing Zuma’s polygamy spotted in Johannesburg.
Read “South Africa’s Election: Why it Matters”
Read “Why South Africa’s Over the Rainbow”