The man who sat by Nelson Mandela’s side as they negotiated the end of South Africa’s apartheid regime has gone on to become the most divisive leader in this nation’s short democratic history.
But President Jacob Zuma’s never-ending stream of scandals – which include a rape trial, a corruption trial, hundreds upon hundreds of mounting corruption charges, and at least two out-of-wedlock children that Zuma, a polygamist with four known wives, fathered with daughters of political allies – aren't what have finally brought the populist president down.
Instead, the 75-year-old's end is being engineered by the very organization whose dangerous militant wing he joined at the tender age of 17, and for whom he spent a decade in prison under the apartheid government.
The ruling African National Congress, which has dominated national politics since 1994, has steadily lost ground to the opposition, and the unpopular president is widely seen as its top liability ahead of elections next year.
“This is a challenging time for our country,” Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa – who took over from Zuma in December as head of the ruling African National Congress – said in a statement this week after several days of closed-door negotiations aimed at convincing Zuma to step down. “Both President Zuma and myself are aware that our people want and deserve closure.”
Trouble from the start
Zuma’s father embedded a warning – and some of his critics say, a prophecy – in naming his newborn son in 1942. Zuma’s middle name, Gedleyihlekisa, refers to a phrase in the isiZulu language that translates to “I won’t keep quiet when someone deceives me with a beautiful smile while he is doing damage to me.”
Accordingly, Zuma’s wide smile and glittering charisma served him well as he made his way up the political ladder, working closely with Mandela and becoming the nation’s deputy president in 1999. Zuma, who has never had any formal schooling, entered the nation’s highest office a decade later, riding a populist wave by positioning himself as champion of the Everyman – a stark contrast to the intellectual, well-educated Thabo Mbeki, who was recalled from the presidency by the ruling African National Congress in 2008.
But Zuma's presidency has been plagued with problems from the start. He weathered eight previous no-confidence votes, each by an increasingly narrow margin – the latest with 198 votes of support squeaking over 177 votes to leave.
Throughout, the opposition has been unstinting in its criticism.
“You, Honorable President, are not an honorable man,” said Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane in a seating of Parliament in 2015. “You are a broken man, presiding over a broken society. You are willing to break every democratic institution to try and fix the legal predicament you find yourself in. You are willing to break this Parliament if it means escaping accountability for the wrongs you have done.”
Author and journalist Adriaan Basson, who has written two books on Zuma – most recently, "Enemy of the People: How Jacob Zuma Stole South Africa and How the People Fought Back” – says Zuma has always been an excellent politician.
“He came to power through a false narrative through which he successfully portrayed himself as a victim of Thabo Mbeki's – his predecessor’s – fight against corruption," Basson said. "He was targeted in an investigation into corruption, and he managed successfully to sell the narrative to the ANC supporters that he was targeted specifically because Mbeki wanted to prevent him from succeeding him as ANC leader.”
But, Basson added, a good politician doesn’t necessarily make a good leader.
“He’s been a terrible president,” the author said of Zuma. “He’s been terrible and poor on all fronts.”
'Some things cannot be pardoned'
The chorus against Zuma has grown since a 2013 investigation uncovered that he used some $23 million in government funds to upgrade his rural residence, Nkandla. That, in part, may have led thousands of mourners to loudly boo him as he spoke in December that year at Mandela’s funeral proceedings in Johannesburg.
That scandal also prompted a flurry of calls for Zuma's resignation. But the death knell came only in late 2017, when he suffered several crushing blows. Those included several court rulings, including a Constitutional Court decision that Parliament had failed to hold him to account over Nkandla.
But it was his replacement as ANC leader – his term was up – that struck what many saw as the deepest blow. Zuma had campaigned actively for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – former South African health minister and chairwoman of the African Union, and one of Zuma’s former wives – to succeed him.
Zuma appeared confident and relaxed in front of journalists ahead of the announcement – though just minutes earlier, his bodyguards struck blows to the throat of a reporter who asked, aloud, if Zuma was responsible for the country’s woes.
"I’m happy to say now that I am bowing out," Zuma said, delivering his signature chuckle.
But when Ramaphosa was announced as the winner, the pinched, tense look on Zuma’s face told a very different story.
'A dangerous man'
Zuma’s closest allies say they have long known about his flaws. As members of the ruling party were trying to convince Zuma to step down, the Nelson Mandela Foundation released a harsh statement demanding his resignation "because he has demonstrated that he is not fit to govern.”
That foundation is comprised of a constellation of South African luminaries, many of them liberation-era stalwarts such as former president Kgalema Motlanthe, former minister Tokyo Sexwale and anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele. The last was the partner of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who died in police custody.
"Some things cannot be pardoned‚" the trustees said – a striking comment, coming from a foundation built to honor a man who dedicated his life to forgiveness and reconciliation.
The ANC even had doubts about Zuma’s character in 2005, after Mbeki dismissed him as deputy president amid corruption allegations.
In a new book, former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils recounted a tense debate over Zuma between ANC stalwarts, many of whom remain in powerful positions today.
“He is a dangerous man,” Kasrils argued.
But the party leadership said they thought Zuma, despite his flaws, represented a powerful narrative that would appeal to the masses who found Mbeki too intellectual, too removed from the realities of ordinary South Africans.
“Mark my words,” Kasrils said he argued to the group. “The party one day will deeply regret this support for Jacob Zuma.”