South Africa has never had a president like Jacob Zuma. For one thing, the 67-year-old self-educated "farm boy" (his own words) has five wives and at least 20 children. On special occasions like weddings and funerals he decks himself out in traditional Zulu finery: leopard skin, headdress and spear. "A leader is a person who doesn't sit back," he tells NEWSWEEK. "Who will do things and make mistakes and be corrected. Who is not reserved." In contrast to the statesmanly lawyer Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, Mandela's Latin-quoting successor, Zuma revels in his tribal roots. "In a sense, he is our first real African president," says his close friend Jeremy Gordin, author of "Zuma: A Biography." "Mandela … came from Xhosa royalty. Mbeki was [educated] in England. But Zuma is a real African, and this real Africanness and lack of sophistication, combined with a real shrewdness, is very compelling."
But also troubling. The continent is littered with the wreckage of countries that were driven into the ground by similarly charismatic postcolonial leaders in the name of revolutionary justice. Africans call them Big Men—demagogues who rose to power promising a better share of the wealth for their followers and railing against anyone who stood in the way. Zuma practically invites the comparison, even down to his choice of a theme song: the Zulu antiapartheid anthem "Lethu Mshini Wami"—"Bring Me My Machine Gun." As head of the ruling African National Congress, however, he's facing only token opposition in this week's South African presidential election. Zuma is extraordinarily intelligent, despite his lack of formal schooling. But he's inheriting some vast challenges: crime-ravaged cities, a reeling economy and the country's ongoing AIDS crisis, among other things. Unemployment among black youth is hovering around 50 percent. Even so, Zuma seems confident he's up to his new job.
His critics ask just what he's up to. Three years ago he was acquitted of rape charges brought against him by a family friend. The judge ruled that the sex had been consensual, but Zuma's cavalier remarks offended many observers—he even argued that the woman had invited his attention by wearing a short dress. And on April 6, barely two weeks before Election Day, the attorney general's office dropped the last 14 outstanding charges of fraud, racketeering and corruption against the candidate, eliminating the last obstacle to his rise. "The majority of the people in this country are very happy," Zuma told NEWSWEEK after the decision, vehemently denying any wrongdoing. "They think justice has been done." Still, roughly half the likely voters in one recent poll said they believed he was guilty—and many said they would vote for him anyway. Opposition politicians have begun legal proceedings to keep the case alive. "I have never been corrupt, and I'm fighting corruption within my organization," says Zuma. "So that is not going to be a problem."
Questions of integrity aside, Zuma has shared something else with many of Africa's Big Men: a hardscrabble childhood. He was 4 when his father died. His mother found work as a domestic in the city of Durban, but she couldn't afford to send the boy to school. Instead he herded cattle in the countryside. He was still in his teens when a relative recruited him for the ANC in 1959. Four years later he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiring against the apartheid regime. He was jailed with Mandela on Robben Island.
The experience only reinforced Zuma's commitment to the revolution after his release. He eventually rose to be the ANC's intelligence chief, based in Zambia at the party's headquarters in exile. When one of his best operatives was compromised on a mission inside South Africa in 1985, Zuma instructed a member of an ANC cell in Durban to take the heat instead, so the operative could escape. The cell member, a young man named Mo Shaik, was arrested along with two of his brothers. Their father was detained and suffered a stroke; his mother died of a heart attack. Mo and his brother Yunis were tortured and spent a year in solitary confinement. "Zuma later apologized to my father for all that had happened, and he ensured that everything would be OK with my family," says Mo. "Zuma knows the difference between those who made sacrifices and those who seek to take advantage now."
Zuma and the Shaiks grew even closer after he returned home in 1990, when the ANC was unbanned. Zuma allegedly received nearly $600,000 in financial help from another of the brothers, Schabir Shaik, a successful businessman. Both men insist it was only a loan, and according to Zuma it has been repaid. But Schabir was subsequently convicted of corruption and fraud. He was released this March for undisclosed health reasons after serving two years and four months of a 15-year sentence.
But Zuma kept fighting until the charges against him were dropped—not because the case was weak, the prosecutor announced, but merely because the filing of charges had come to appear politically motivated. "I've got no ill feelings," Zuma says now. "I'm not going for revenge." But some of his allies have vowed to go after the "witches," "snakes" and "mischievous forces of darkness" responsible for the charges against him. And the candidate himself has filed a libel suit against one South African cartoonist who depicted him as a thug about to rape a woman labeled "Justice."
But in some ways Zuma offers new hope for a unified South Africa. He demurs at being called the country's first Zulu president. "The Zuluness is not the big issue," he says. "I've always looked at myself first as a South African—a black South African who always fought for the interests of the oppressed."
In fact, he has a strong record as a man who transcends ethnic and even racial barriers. He had a vital role 10 years ago in ending the virtual civil war between the ANC and armed followers of Zulu political leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a conflict that left thousands dead. In the past couple of years Zuma has reached out to the country's white-minority Afrikaners, calling them "the white tribe of Africa." One problem: many English-speaking South Africans now feel left out. Recently the president-to-be met for three hours with a delegation from the country's second-largest labor union, Solidarity, with 130,000 mostly Afrikaner members. (He speaks at least a little Afrikaans himself.) "He doesn't always take up your concerns and be a Mr. Fix-It, but he does listen," says Dirk Hermann, the union's head. "And that's hugely important for us. He's like a Zulu king, sitting under his tree, listening to his tribe." Zuma's challenge now is to make sure his tribe includes everyone in South Africa.