- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

PRETORIA, South Africa | Jacob Zuma took power Saturday in the culmination of an extraordinary political comeback, pledging to Nelson Mandela and the nation to renew the spirit of commitment and hope of South Africa’s first black presidency.

Mr. Zuma was once imprisoned under apartheid and spent years in exile before surviving corruption and sex scandals and a party power struggle to reach the nation’s highest office. He has been embraced by many South Africans with a fervor usually reserved for Mr. Mandela.

The elder statesman was cheered as he arrived for the inauguration in a golf cart to join the 5,000 VIP guests and tens of thousands of ordinary South Africans who had gathered for the ceremony.

In a speech after taking the oath, Mr. Zuma looked back to 1994, when Mr. Mandela became South Africa’s first black president after leading the campaign that defeated apartheid.

“We gather here determined to renew that most solemn undertaking, to build a society in which all people are freed from the shackles of discrimination, exploitation, want and disease,” Mr. Zuma said.

After the formal part of the program, held on the stone veranda of a colonial-era complex, Mr. Zuma left the dignitaries in their chic furs or designer traditional outfits. He thanked the crowd gathered on the lawn wearing jeans and ANC T-shirts who had watched the inauguration on TV screens. In a brief speech, most of it in Zulu, he said their embrace of democracy was inspiring.

Mr. Zuma, a 67-year-old former guerrilla fighter and intelligence chief of the African National Congress, led his ANC party to an overwhelming parliamentary victory in April. Parliament elected him president on Wednesday.

The ANC, though, did not win the two-thirds majority it did in 2004, a slide largely attributed to a split in the party because of Mr. Zuma’s power struggle with ANC colleague and former President Thabo Mbeki. The crowd on the lawns Saturday repeatedly booed Mr. Mbeki.

Mr. Zuma once herded livestock in the rural Zulu heartland. His father was a policeman who died when Mr. Zuma was a boy. His mother worked as a maid in the coastal city of Durban. Mr. Zuma was denied a formal education, and by 15 he was doing odd jobs to help support his family.

He joined the ANC in 1959 and by 21 he was arrested while trying to leave the country illegally. Mr. Zuma was imprisoned for 10 years on Robben Island, alongside Mr. Mandela and other heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle.

After prison, he married Sizakele Khumalo, his childhood sweetheart from his Zulu village - the first of several marriages. Mr. Zuma’s unabashed polygamy has raised questions about which of his three current wives would be first lady. On Saturday, all three were reported present but only Mrs. Khumalo accompanied him to the stage.

Mr. Zuma was appointed deputy president in 1999 by Mr. Mbeki, who fired him in 2005, when Mr. Zuma was implicated in the corruption trial of a close friend and financial adviser.

Mr. Mbeki later lost the party leadership to Mr. Zuma and was forced last year to yield the presidency to an interim successor, Kgalema Motlanthe.

Prosecutors lifted the last obstacle in Mr. Zuma’s path last month when they announced that they were dropping corruption charges against him, saying the case had been manipulated for political reasons and the criminal charges would never be revived.

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