The accusations against South Africa's president are many, but despite all the legal and political battles to oust him, "JZ" as he is often called, has survived.

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma is a political survivor.
South Africa's President Jacob Zuma is a political survivor.

South Africa's jovial leader Jacob Zuma is a former herdboy who fought in the anti-apartheid struggle and has held onto the presidency for eight turbulent years despite a plethora of scandals.

Zuma, 75, has survived by building a network of fiercely loyal African National Congress (ANC) lawmakers and officials, as well as trading on the party's legacy as the organisation that ended white-minority rule.

Among the major stains on his presidency have been allegedly fostering a culture of government corruption, and leading the country into a quagmire of low economic growth and record unemployment.

On Tuesday he survived another attempt by opposition parties to oust him via a no-confidence vote in parliament.

As leader of the late Nelson Mandela's party, which has won every election since South Africa became a democracy in 1994, Zuma was an easy victor when securing a second five-year term in 2014.

Strong appeal

The son of a domestic worker, he has "a very strong appeal" to the working class and the poor, says Sdumo Dlamini, head of the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), an ANC ally.

"He is a people's person and he has grown through the ranks of the working class. He knows the suffering of the ordinary folk."

Jacob Zuma is a peoples person and enjoys strong albeit declining support as seen here in this 2014 picture where supporters welcome him to a political rally in Soweto. Picture: AP
Jacob Zuma is a peoples person and enjoys strong albeit declining support as seen here in this 2014 picture where supporters welcome him to a political rally in Soweto. Picture: AP

Born on April 12, 1942, in the rural outpost of Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal province, Zuma had a meteoric rise in politics.

Popularly referred to as "JZ", he enjoys loyalty from millions of ANC grassroots supporters awed by his journey from uneducated cattle herder to president, with a 10-year stint as an apartheid-era political prisoner on Robben Island along the way.

When he took the reins of the ANC in 2007 in a putsch against ex-president Thabo Mbeki, Zuma inherited a party riddled with divisions.

Tensions have only deepened further as poverty and racial inequality continue to blight the country more than 20 years after the end of apartheid, and the ANC has been accused of losing its moral compass.

As criticism of his reign mounted, Zuma has maintained a cheerful public facade, often giggling and laughing as the allegations against him built up.

Significantly weakened

But he has been significantly weakened as increasingly senior ANC figures have criticised him in public.

He was forced into a humiliating climbdown in 2015 after firing a minister of finance and appointing a man widely seen as a stooge.

Within four days of appointing Des van Rooyen (L) finance minister, President Jacob Zuma had to fire the man many perceived to be a stooge. Picture: AP
Within four days of appointing Des van Rooyen (L) finance minister, President Jacob Zuma had to fire the man many perceived to be a stooge. Picture: AP

As the local rand currency went into freefall, Zuma bowed to pressure and re-appointed Pravin Gordhan, an admired former finance minister, to the key post.

In a tussle that symbolised his tenacious grip over the ANC, Zuma finally got the finance minister of his choice in March this year when Gordhan was ousted in a midnight reshuffle.

In 2016, Zuma agreed to pay back some of the public money spent on his private residence at Nkandla backing down in the face of a stinging Constitutional Court rebuke.

Colourful private life

Zuma's private life is as colourful as his political career.

A proud traditionalist, he often swaps his suits for full leopard-pelt Zulu warrior gear, engaging in energetic ground-stomping tribal dances during ceremonies in his village.

Jacob Zuma, left, celebrates as he weds his 33 year-old wife Nompumelelo Ntuli, unseen, during their Zulu traditional wedding in Nkandla, 400km north of Durban, South Africa, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2008. Picture: AP
Jacob Zuma, left, celebrates as he weds his 33 year-old wife Nompumelelo Ntuli, unseen, during their Zulu traditional wedding in Nkandla, 400km north of Durban, South Africa, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2008. Picture: AP

At ANC rallies, he is the first to break into tuneful song.

In the past, he loved leading supporters in the rousing anti-apartheid struggle song "Umshini Wami" (Bring Me My Machine Gun), which became his signature tune.

The teetotaller and non-smoker has four wives and at least 20 children.

He joined the ANC as a teenager, becoming the strategic and ruthless head of intelligence of the underground organisation.

Rape trial

Before taking office, Zuma dismayed the nation during his 2006 rape trial when he told the court he had showered after having sex with his young HIV-positive accuser to avoid contracting the virus.

He was head of the country's national AIDS council at the time.

Zuma was acquitted of rape but is often mocked in newspaper cartoons and depicted with a shower nozzle sprouting from his bald head.

Jacob Zuma, bottom right, sits in the dock as his supporters react after Zuma was found not guilty in the judgement in his trial for rape in the Johannesburg High Court in Johannesburg, South Africa, Monday May 2006. Picture: AP
Jacob Zuma, bottom right, sits in the dock as his supporters react after Zuma was found not guilty in the judgement in his trial for rape in the Johannesburg High Court in Johannesburg, South Africa, Monday May 2006. Picture: AP

At Mandela's memorial service he was loudly booed by ordinary South Africans in front of world leaders.

During Zuma's time in power, South Africa has also been rocked by increasing social unrest over the failure to provide housing and basic services such as electricity and water to end the deprivations of apartheid.

Zuma is still fighting a court order that could reinstate almost 800 corruption charges against him over a multi-billion dollar arms deal in the 1990s.

Despite the stalling economy and the many calls for him to stand down, Zuma may well see off his critics and stay in office until his term ends in 2019.

Source: AFP