Johannesburg — SA's columnists currently find it difficult to write about much else besides the terrifying prospect of Jacob Zuma becoming president, first of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and then of the country.
Ever since the former deputy president, dismissed by President Thabo Mbeki after a court had found one of Zuma's associates guilty of corruption, launched his political comeback campaign, the notion that the country could soon be ruled by an uneducated Zulu whose strongest supporters, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), make no secret of their wish to nationalise the banks, the mines and other major industries, has scared business rigid.
Indeed, it is the rising groundswell of support for Zuma which largely explains the 40% fall in the rand since late May. Progressive opinion is equally incensed that during his rape trial the 64-year-old Zuma should have confessed to having had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive 31-year-old and merely taken a shower afterwards as a precaution against AIDS, as also by his recent derogatory remarks about gays.
Yet there is another side to Zuma. His popularity among ANC activists stems in good part from his easy human rapport: he is always in huge demand to sing at funerals and weddings, and performs with gusto.
While Zuma was still deputy president I chanced one day upon the opposition Democratic Alliance's chief whip, Douglas Gibson, a man hugely disliked by the ANC. Mbeki was out of the country, he said, so he'd just been seeing Zuma, who was the acting president. "It was an absolute pleasure," he beamed. "Warm, genial, helpful and friendly. What a nice human being."
Such accolades are not uncommon and as you sit down with the man, you know immediately that talking with him is going to be pleasant and easy.
"I start from basic Christian principles. Christianity is part of what I am; in a way it was the foundation for all my political beliefs," he explains. He grew up in rural Inkandla, deep in the heart of Zululand, where he was a herdboy and a member of the United Congregational Church.
"My father died when I was young, my mother had to seek work as a domestic, and there was no chance of me getting educated. I wanted to be a teacher, a priest or a lawyer but all I could do was to try to get other children to show me what they learnt at school. From that and with my stepmother's help I learnt to read and write Zulu." He only achieved literacy in English through being taught by fellow prisoners during his 10-year stint on Robben Island.
After the coming of democracy in 1994, Zuma, the ANC leader in KwaZulu-Natal, was largely responsible for making peace with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha movement, ending years of strife between the parties. But in 1999 he became Mbeki's deputy president.
Whereas under Mandela, deputy-president Mbeki had largely run the country, it was immediately clear that Mbeki would keep all real power and that Zuma would have a relatively minor role. "That was fine by me. I was happy just to be part of the team. Indeed, the president and I decided that, rather than chair three cabinet subcommittees each, we'd just have two and ask Buthelezi to chair the other two. It was a gesture of conciliation he much appreciated."
Whereas Mbeki was a remote and somewhat cold figure, the ever-genial Zuma was the government's human face, setting aside every Thursday to see any ministers or deputy ministers who had problems.
But all was not well. The revelation of Mbeki's bizarre views on AIDS and his siding with Zimbabwe's embattled President Robert Mugabe caused a crisis of confidence in the new president and murmuring began -- immediately picked up by the hyper-sensitive Mbeki -- that even Zuma might be a safer pair of hands.
Zuma was made to deny publicly that he had any interest in replacing Mbeki as president.
A formal police investigation seeking to link Zuma to corruption in the government's multibillion-rand arms deal was opened in 2001 though, says Zuma, "I was only a year in office when I became aware that informal investigations into me were already going on".
"It was crazy: the arms deal was signed by the national government at a time when I was a provincial minister in KwaZulu-Natal. I had absolutely nothing to do with it."
And, indeed, after five years of investigation by huge teams of detectives, the prosecution of Zuma has now all but collapsed, reinforcing his view that it was all a conspiracy against him.
"It was the same with the rape case. Remember, I was ANC chief of intelligence. I know that there were celebrations in certain quarters when that young woman agreed to lay charges against me. She was clearly sent to me for that purpose. As soon as I heard she was laying charges I knew there had to be a plot. I felt very betrayed. I should have realised it before. It's so obvious, really, a young woman wearing very little comes and sits down on your bed and asks to get under the blanket with you ... But I am confident that the truth about that case will come out in time."
It is not easy to discuss a politician's sex life with him but Zuma is unembarrassed. "Most of my problems come from media manipulation. It's clear that many people, including some journalists, had an interest in my being found guilty of rape. When I was found innocent they concentrated on the fact that I'd had sex without a condom and that I'd taken a shower after sex. I had to go into the minutest details."
Had this had any effect upon his marital life? Not at all, he says, as if surprised by the question. We go over his marital life. He has had four wives, but one has died and another has divorced him, leaving him with two. A further engagement to a Swazi princess was broken off last year.
Zuma is unembarrassed about his old-style African polygamy. "Honesty is always the best policy. I don't feel comfortable if I'm not honest. There are plenty of politicians -- he clearly means ANC leaders -- who have mistresses and children that they hide so as to pretend they're monogamous. I prefer to be open. I love my wives and I'm proud of my children."
And, indeed, once we stop talking a beaming young son is proudly introduced to me.
What about gays? He sighs. "Look, it was King Shaka day, which I celebrated with Chief Buthelezi and King Goodwill Zwelethini. I praised the way Shaka, the founder of the Zulu nation, had trained the young people. The girls have to be virgins and bare-breasted when they attend the reed dance and are presented to the king. It's a good thing; it delays them from having sex and lowers the risk of AIDS. But Shaka also trained the young men as warriors and they couldn't have sex until there had been the 'washing of the spears', when they proved themselves in battle.
"I said what we need is some form of training for our young men to keep them from crime and delinquent behaviour. I spoke of how when I was a boy we still trained in stick-fighting and if you saw a boy who was effeminate, a sissy, he was beaten up because everyone had to learn to fight and be strong." The Zulu word for sissy is also used for gays. This ended with Zuma having to apologise humbly to gays, an apology which is not widely accepted.
"There are always journalists wanting to quote me out of context, wanting to bend everything I say."
He asks what I think the chances are of journalists being paid to write in a certain way, something he obviously believes to be the case.
The fact that his chief supporters, the SACP and Cosatu, favour sweeping nationalisation of all major industries doesn't worry him. "They have always argued for those things but that is not ANC policy. I am happy with ANC policy as it is."
But surely he realises he's bound to come under enormous pressure to spell out his own plans for the economy. "I shall try very hard to resist such pressure."
But isn't it obvious that the SACP and Cosatu hope to use the Zuma cause to capture the ANC and change its policies? Already Cosatu leaders have said that once Zuma gets to power, "it will be payback time. After all, but for our support he'd just be counting cows in Inkandla".
Alarmingly, Zuma is not alarmed by such talk. "The ANC is a collective," he says. "Policy is decided altogether. I don't want to say anything which might seem critical of government policy. That would be seen as disloyal and in the ANC you have no future if you're disloyal."
That is, indeed, the nub. Zuma has spent his entire life in the ANC and it has taught him all he knows: it is his world. His campaign is based on winning the support of ANC activists and in this it is succeeding. He isn't bothered about anything else. He is shrewdly aware of the moves of other would-be ANC presidential candidates (ie Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni and Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota), but right now he is the front runner by a large margin.
Has he no views of his own? "You could say I have a passion for the poor. To be frank, I'm not happy that after more than 10 years in power so many of our people are still living in shacks. And far more needs to be done to help poor rural people. The bantustans were abolished but nothing has been done to replace the money they brought into rural areas."
Zuma's supporters want him to be a South African Hugo Chavez and he is certainly a man of the people. His prejudices and his natural populism are widely shared. In a lot of ways he is a simple Zulu traditionalist.
I ask him whether he would like to revive the project of uniting Inkatha and the ANC? "That's a tricky issue. But I am very grateful for Chief Buthelezi's support and that of all the chiefs and the king. In the end, Inkatha's supporters and ours are much the same people, and what matters is what's good for the country." And while Nelson Mandela ordered ANC leaders not to encourage tribalism by addressing their supporters in the different African languages, Zuma -- like Buthelezi -- happily regales vast crowds in Zulu.
After 12 years of ANC rule there is huge frustration that unemployment still hovers near 40% and that Mbeki is so remote. These frustrations pour easily into Zuma's campaign and while Zuma himself is a natural conciliator and consensus-seeker, the passionate support he elicits and the old-style Marxism of his key supporters panics many whites.
Ken Owen, once editor of Business Day, has declared that if Zuma and his ilk come to power it will be time "to pack your bags and go". Zuma can't understand such a violent reaction to him.
But it's time to go. His supporters are greatly worried that he might be assassinated so he travels with a large retinue of bodyguards. He is, of course, off to Inkandla, there to relax among villagers still living in mud huts, his many children and his beloved cows.
Johnson is a historian and a journalist. His interview with Zuma was first published in the London Sunday Times at the weekend.