- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

KWANXAMALALA, SOUTH AFRICA (AP) - One-time goat herder Jacob Zuma is poised to lead Africa’s strongest economic power after elections Wednesday _ a victor of the fight against white rule, an unabashed polygamist, and a survivor of sex and corruption scandals that threatened his political career.

South African voters are projected to give an overwhelming majority to the long-governing African National Congress party and hand the presidency to the ANC’s leader, Zuma.

The 67-year-old head of the former liberation movement’s feared intelligence unit is beloved by the poor, who feel his deprived childhood gives him insight into their painful poverty. His opponents warn that his populism is dangerous for democracy.

Zuma says decisions will be made by the collective leadership, indicating there won’t be major changes in government policies that are generally friendly to the West and capitalism.

Despite the ANC’s leftist roots, the succession of governments it has led since the end of apartheid in 1994 has broadly abided by free-market principles. Relations with the U.S. have been prickly at times, notably over the Iraq war, but the new government is likely to remain friendly, especially to President Barack Obama, whose election electrified South Africans.

During the campaign, there were hints Zuma would take a tougher line on authoritarian President Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe. But now that Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, has persuaded Mugabe to share power with the opposition, the focus has shifted to cajoling the West to provide aid.

A great showman, Zuma has a strong, deep voice and seldom misses the chance to break into song, often the anti-apartheid “Umshini Wami,” which means “Bring Me My Machine Gun.” A microphone in his hand, he breaks into a wide tooth-gapped smile and the crowd goes wild as if at a rock concert.

“Zuma as president will be much more personable,” said Adam Habib, a political analyst at the University of Johannesburg. “He is going to do a jig on the stage far more; he will hug grannies; he will shake people’s hands; he will kiss babies in a much more greater way than Mbeki.”

“In all of those ways, I think he is much closer to (Nelson) Mandela. Does he generate the same sense of integrity? No, he doesn’t,” Habib said.

A frail Mandela, who turned 90 last year, twice appeared at Zuma campaign rallies. On Sunday, tens of thousands of Zuma supporters became nearly hysterical with joy when Mandela and Zuma paraded around a stadium in a golf cart.

Critics accuse Zuma of encouraging a personality cult and warn that despite the global recession he is raising expectations impossible to fulfill among supporters who look to him for salvation.

“Zuma is Jesus!” declared a poster at Sunday’s final campaign rally.

Zuma and his supporters also allude to a divine destiny. “God expects us (the ANC) to rule this country. … That is why we will rule until Jesus comes back,” Zuma told The Cape Times in an interview after he became president of the ANC.

Zuma’s anticipated inauguration as president May 9 will be a remarkable milestone for the man who once herded livestock in the rural Zulu heartland, home to sugar cane plantations, eucalyptus forests and misty mountains. Zuma maintains an isolated, hillside homestead here in Kwanxamalala.

His father, who also had multiple wives, was a policeman who died when he was a boy. His mother worked as a maid in the coastal city of Durban. He was denied a formal education and by 15 he was doing odd jobs to help support his family.

Zuma joined the ANC in 1959 and by 21 he was arrested while trying to leave the country illegally. He was jailed for 10 years on Robben Island, alongside Mandela and other heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle. In prison, Zuma resumed his schooling and began making a name for himself among ANC prisoners.

He left South Africa in 1975 for 15 years of exile in neighboring Swaziland, Mozambique and Zambia, where he was appointed chief of the ANC’s intelligence department. Following the lifting of the ANC ban in 1990, Zuma was one of the first of the group’s leaders to return to South Africa.

Zuma was credited with ending violence pitting ANC members against the main Zulu political party in the troubled province of KwaZulu-Natal before South Africa’s first multiracial election in 1994.

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

Mbeki later lost a bitter power struggle with Zuma for the party leadership and was eventually forced last year to yield the South African presidency to an interim successor, Kgalema Motlanthe.

Prosecutors lifted the last obstacle in Zuma’s path to the presidency earlier this month when they dropped corruption charges, saying the case had been manipulated for political reasons and that criminal charges would never be revived.

Some South Africans and the international community worry about the influence of allies who propelled Zuma to power _ leftist trade unions and the South African Communist Party, to which Zuma belonged for most of his life.

Habib, for one, sees little to fear from a Zuma presidency and believes he will be “more responsive” to South Africa’s most pressing problems _ crime, AIDS and corruption.

Zuma is a Zulu traditionalist who proudly took a second wife last year. It was his fourth marriage. He is divorced from Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, and another of his wives killed herself more than eight years ago. He is said to have more than 10 children.

Questions about his moral choices were raised after Zuma, who was head of the country’s AIDS program, acknowledged having unprotected sex with the HIV-positive daughter of a family friend and said he took a shower to protect himself from AIDS.

Zuma was acquitted of raping the woman, younger than some of his own children. But he failed to chastise supporters who threatened the woman’s life, causing her to flee into exile.

The case disturbed Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who called for Zuma two years ago to abandon his political ambitions. Tutu asked: “What sort of example would he be setting?”

Zulus believe Zuma sets a proud one _ reveling in his rich heritage, as at home in traditional leopard skins as in a pinstripe suit, a more traditional African leader than any on the continent.

___

Associated Press writers Celean Jacobson and Donna Bryson in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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