Born in Nkandla, South Africa, on April 12, 1942, Jacob Zuma joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1959. After serving time in prison for his involvement with a militant wing, he rose in the party’s ranks and became its president in 2007, two years before his election as president of South Africa.
A controversial politician, Zuma has been involved in several legal scandals associated with corruption and racketeering. He is also a polygamist, with 20 children. Following attempts by the ANC to oust him from power, Zuma announced his resignation from the presidency in February 2018.
Early Life and Background
Born on April 12, 1942, in Nkandla, a part of South Africa now known as KwaZulu Natal (once Zululand), Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma is a controversial figure in South African politics. He lost his police officer father when he was only 4 years old, and to help his family after his father’s death, he did odd jobs to bring in money while his mother was employed as a domestic worker. With no time for school, he taught himself how to read and write.
Influenced by a trade unionist family member, Zuma joined the ANC, a political party that stood against the country’s practice of apartheid—or racial segregation—and other discriminatory policies in the late 1950s. Also around this time, the ANC and other opposition groups were banned by the government so Zuma had to keep his membership secret.
Entry Into Politics
Forced to go underground, the ANC, which had long been a nonviolent group, developed a militant wing in the early 1960s. Known as Umkhonto we Sizwe, the new militant group undertook acts of sabotage against the government. Zuma joined the group in 1962 and was arrested the next year with 45 other members and soon was convicted of conspiracy. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, he served his time in the infamous Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela, the country’s future president, was also imprisoned for many years.
After his release in 1973, Zuma continued working for the ANC and played an essential role in building the underground organization’s infrastructure in KwaZulu Natal. Two years later, he went into exile living in several different African nations. Zuma remained dedicated to the ANC and joined the organization’s National Executive Committee in 1977. Holding a number of ANC posts over the next decade, he established a reputation as loyal and hard working.
After the ban on the ANC was lifted in 1990, Zuma returned to South Africa. He helped the party negotiate with the existing government led by F. W. de Klerk about political prisoners and the return of exiles. In his native KwaZulu Natal, Zuma also worked to end the violence there. While he failed in his 1994 campaign to become premier of that province, Zuma is credited with establishing lasting peace in the region and became a member of the province’s Executive Committee of Economic Affairs and Tourism that year. Within his own political party, he won the position of national chairperson of ANC as well as the party’s chairperson position for the KwaZulu Natal.
Rape and Corruption Charges
Continuing with his political ascent, Zuma was appointed executive deputy president of South Africa by Thabo Mbeki in 1999, after Mbeki won the presidency. As part of his vision for the country, Mbeki created a special unit—known informally as “the Scorpions”—to investigate corruption. Later that year, the South-African government announced that it had reached a deal to buy 29 million rand worth of strategic arms—planes, boats, helicopters and submarines. This deal has haunted Zuma for years. He and other members of the government were investigated when financial irregularities were discovered. Initially cleared in a 2001 report on the matter, Zuma ended up facing corruption charges, though those charges were dropped in 2003.
Zuma’s legal woes resurfaced in 2005 after his financial advisor, Shabir Shaik, was convicted of corruption and fraud. Zuma was again charged with corruption for taking a bribe in connection with the 1999 arms deal. As a result, he was fired by President Mbeki.
In December 2005, Zuma was charged with raping a woman in his home. Pleading not guilty, Zuma stood on trial in Johannesburg for several months in early 2006. During the trial, Zuma was criticized for his ignorance about the transmission of HIV/AIDS. His accuser was HIV positive and Zuma said that they had sex without protection and that he showered after having sex to avoid getting the virus. This was big news for a country has been battling a HIV/AIDS epidemic. After the judge ruled that the sex was consensual, Zuma was acquitted of the charge in May.
In the fall of 2006, the corruption charges against Zuma were thrown out by a judge. However, the door was left open for charges to be filed against him in the future. Free of legal challenges, Zuma was soon running for the presidency of the ANC. He took on former friend and president Mbeki for control of their political party. Mbeki was viewed a moderate politician who had helped steadily grow the country’s economy, one of the strongest in Africa, though some saw him as aloof and removed from the people.
South African Leadership
In contrast to Mbeki, Jacob Zuma positioned himself as a man of the people, his triumph over early struggles making him an appealing figure to many South Africans. He also capitalized his history as a guerilla fighter to show himself to be a man of action, using the song, “Bring Me My Machine Gun,” as his anthem.
When Zuma defeated Mbeki in December 2007, it was seen as a sign of impending change for South Africa. Strongly supported by the unions and some communist party officials, he was considered likely to move to the left from the centrist positions of Mbeki, according to a report from the Pretoria News. This created some concern over the country’s economic future.
In 2009, Zuma was elected president of South Africa, defeating Kgalema Motlanthe, who became his deputy president. He was reelected in 2014, despite mounting criticism that his administration had failed to improve the nation’s economy or effectively battle corruption.
On February 14, 2018, Jacob Zuma announced he was stepping down as president of South Africa. The announcement came after ANC called for a no-confidence vote in the president and publicly demanded his resignation.
“No life should be lost in my name and also the ANC should never be divided in my name,” he said during a nationally televised political address. “I have therefore come to the decision to resign as president of the republic with immediate effect.”
The ANC had been trying to oust Zuma for months. In December 2017, the party elected former union leader Cyril Ramaphosa to be its new president, though Zuma subsequently rejected the urging of ANC members to quietly step aside.
- Jacob Zuma Biography and Profile (Biography)