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Saturday, 13 September 2008

Zuma defies the odds again

from News24
Michael Georgy

Johannesburg - Close escapes have become a habit for Jacob Zuma, whose corruption trial was called off on Friday and who now looks set to become South Africa's president in a dramatic political comeback.

Dismissed as deputy president in 2005 over accusations of corruption, the populist leader avoided trial on a technicality only to face renewed charges that have now been thrown out by the judge.

In the meantime, he was acquitted in a rape trial and managed to wrest the leadership of the ruling African National Congress from President Thabo Mbeki, who has to step down next year after an election Zuma is almost guaranteed to win.

Zuma's rise has worried some investors, who fear his left-leaning trade union, and communist allies will try to steer him away from policies behind economic growth.

But he has been working his charm over the past few months, exuding confidence despite the enormous pressures and huge costs of his legal battle, rebuilding an image that his court appearances have done nothing to improve.

On trial for rape, Zuma stunned many when he said he took a shower after unprotected sex with his HIV-positive accuser to protect himself.

Just last week, millions of South Africans woke up to a newspaper cartoon of Zuma unbuckling his belt and about to rape a woman symbolising justice, causing outrage in the ANC and unions.

Allegations that he took bribes in connection with a huge arms deal arranged by South Africa often overshadowed his status as an anti-apartheid hero who spent a decade in prison with Nelson Mandela.

According to the latest graft charges that have now been dropped, Zuma was accused of taking 783 bribes totaling over R4 million rand over a 10-year period. He was also accused of soliciting a bribe from a French arms firm.

Struggle

Describing Zuma's rivalry with President Mbeki as a titanic struggle, the judge who cleared him of graft allegations said there had been political interference in the case, vindicating the Zulu politician.

Zuma has pulled off yet another surprise.

"I think it's a huge victory for him personally and for those who have backed him. It's an astonishing judgment in the links it makes to validate the claim that there is a political conspiracy against him," said Nic Borain political consultant to HSBC Securities.

Zuma's followers have never wavered and their support has grown ever more fervent through the trials.

Most are from black townships not far from Johannesburg's fancy malls, glaring reminders of the deep inequalities that still exist in post-apartheid South Africa.

Zuma has not spelled out how he would ease problems such as widespread poverty and crime, or say how he would tackle Aids. But charisma has always carried him through. The ANC's dominance means he can be confident of being elected next year.

Zuma has kept promising to help the poor, courted foreign investors and even delivered a speech alongside South Africa's chief Rabbi to address the problem of racism as part of an image polishing campaign.

Zuma may not have the academic understanding of economics that foreign investors might prefer, but has proven himself as a skilful mediator.

By taking a tougher stand on Zimbabwe's crisis than Mbeki, he won esteem in the eyes of Western countries that felt the South African president was too soft.

From KwaZulu-Natal province, Zuma has earned respect as a peacemaker at home, mediating between the ANC and the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party in the early 1990s to head off a possible civil war.

A former member of ANC's Umkhonto we Sizwe military wing, Zuma rose to become head of intelligence, a post that gave him leverage with allies and opponents alike.

Zuma often follows traditional ways, shedding his suit for Zulu regalia - a shield and cow hide - when he retreats to his rural homeland.

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