JOHANNESBURG, Apr 22 – The caricature of Jacob Zuma overseas is of a stereotypical, violent African polygamist. Many white South Africans see him as a rising dictator. But a majority here see their likely next president as one of their own.
The leader of the African National Congress (ANC), which has dominated politics since the first all-race polls in 1994, is almost certain to be elected president by the parliament created by Wednesday’s general elections.
South Africa’s fourth president is also certain to be its most controversial — in part because he does not compromise on embracing local culture without the usual nods to Western norms.
At 67, Zuma attends traditional ceremonies in ethnic Zulu dress of leopard skins.
He professes his love for all his wives — he has married four — and his 18 children. At ANC rallies, he dances and sings the anti-apartheid anthem "Umshini Wami" (Bring me my Machine Gun).
"He’s an easy person to caricature," said political scientist Adam Habib, adding that the cartoon image is often tainted by "racism and urban chauvinism."
The ridicule only grew after he told a court in 2006, when he was acquitted on rape charges, that he had showered to protect himself from AIDS after having sex with his HIV-positive accuser.
More damaging were the years of legal haggling over corruption allegations, in a case finally dropped by prosecutors who complained of political interference in their work, which has left a cloud of doubts hanging around him.
After a childhood herding cattle in his home village of Nkandla, deep in Zulu country, he rose to the top ranks of politics despite a fierce rivalry with former president Thabo Mbeki, who sacked him as deputy president in 2005.
With the support of the poor masses who felt ignored by Mbeki, and buoyed by the organisation skills of his allies in the labour movement and the South African communist party, Zuma snatched the ANC leadership from Mbeki in December 2007.
Nine months later, the new party leadership forced Mbeki to resign as head of state.
Zuma biographer Jeremy Gordin believes the ANC’s left wing was alienated by British-educated Mbeki’s elitism.
But self-taught Zuma openly confronts the "modernist prejudices" of urban intellectuals, according to analyst Xolela Mangcu.
"Zuma is frightening to some people, especially whites, because he comes from a world of which they are not part," Gordin said.
An Ipsos poll bore that out, finding that blacks rate Zuma 7.7 out of 10, while whites rated him at 1.9.
If Zuma embodies the hopes of the disappointed, it is because he is endowed with a rare capacity for empathy — a gift that emerges when he addresses crowds or makes time to speak with everyone in Nkandla who wants to talk to him.
"He is simply a man of great charm — and he is innately respectful of others," Gordin wrote.
But his gift has a flip side.
"He listens to everyone around him, and that blurs his judgement," one ANC insider said on condition of anonymity.
The tea-totalling, non-smoking Zuma does tailor his message to his audience, prompting him into often contradictory statements.
His charm masks the patience of a predator, which Gordin attributes to the 10 years he spent in apartheid prisons, and his service as the head of ANC’s intelligence in exile.
He is also a sharp negotiator who played a key role in the difficult transition to democracy here in the 1990s, and in the peace process in Burundi.
What sets his critics on edge, according to researcher Mark Gevisser, is not the stereotypes.
"The discomfort with Zuma is based on his populist politics and his manifest lack of judgement," he said.