He may well be the last of the great freedom fighters to run South Africa. If so, Jacob Zuma will not be lacking for qualifications — at least for the rough and tumble part.

A self-taught herdsman who became a resistance fighter, an apartheid prisoner alongside Nelson Mandela and then a controversial party boss whose ambition divided the ruling ANC, Zuma, 67, has had the kind of storied career that spans much of modern-day, post-colonial Africa.

No one seriously expects him to lose on Wednesday, when South Africans go to the polls for the fourth, fully democratic general election since apartheid was abolished in 1994.

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ANC supporters wave placards of party leader Jacob Zuma at a campaign rally in Ngwelezane township in April 2009. (Rajesh Jantilal/Associated Press)

Despite a split in the ranks over Zuma's leadership, the ruling African National Congress party has never dropped below 62 per cent since the instigation of majority rule, even as the party's popularity has been declining amid accusations of corruption and ineptitude.

A polarizing figure with an outsized personality, Zuma has long defied frequent predictions of political demise, not to mention the taunts of his opponents who claim his Communist allies and chaotic style will bring the country to ruin.

Zulu time

Unlike his aloof and westernized predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, with whom he fought a protracted internal party battle for succession, Zuma is genial man with a common touch.

Indeed, some say he is the most popular politician in South Africa, particularly among the poor and his fellow Zulus who feel they'd been left behind while a minority prospered.

Still, he is both loved and feared for his own excesses. An earthy self-proclaimed polygamist, Zuma revels in wearing the traditional leopard skin and loincloth on occasion and has been known to light up the political stage with the old ANC battle song Bring Me My Machine Gun.

The author

Sheila Whyte is a CBC producer, based in Toronto, with a long interest in African affairs.

Like many of his generation, he gave his life to the movement that ended apartheid. But in the 16-month run-up to this election, he was also largely responsible for the nasty split that divided the ANC and forced his predecessor from office.

In fact, just weeks before the scheduled vote, state prosecutors officially dropped 16 criminal charges against Zuma for fraud and corruption among other things, ending a legal battle that had gripped South Africa for the past five years. 

The early years

Jacob Gedleyihekisa Zuma was born in KwaZulu-Natal province in April 1942. His father was a police sergeant who died when Jacob was two so his mother took the family to Durban where she worked as a domestic servant. Zuma lived both in Durban as well as elsewhere in KwaZulu-Natal where he tended the family livestock and took odd jobs to help support the family.

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ANC leader Jacob Zuma in traditional Zulu garb during a Heritage Day celebration in 2008. (Associated Press)

He had little formal schooling. His official biography says he was heavily influenced by a family member in the trade union movement and joined the African National Congress in 1959 and then its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, known by its initials MK. He also went on to join the country's powerful Communist party, which was instrumental in helping elect him to head the ANC in December 2007.

As an early member of the ANC's military wing, Zuma was arrested in 1963 and spent 10 years in Robben Island prison, alongside Nelson Mandela, for conspiring to overthrow white rule.

It was during his time in prison that he began his formal studies and taught himself to read and write. His fellow inmates described him as a good singer and a gifted storyteller.

Upon his release, he organized resistance fighters, then left South Africa in 1975 to help set up the ANC in exile in Swaziland and Mozambique. In 1987, he was forced to leave Mozambique and shifted the ANC's head office to Lusaka, Zambia, where he was appointed head of the underground and then chief of intelligence, a position not without controversy.

Post-apartheid

In 1990, when the ban on the ANC was lifted, Mandela and other political prisoners were released and Zuma became one of the front-line negotiators in the talks to end apartheid and establish majority rule.

Following South Africa's first fully democratic election in 1994, he developed a reputation as a peacemaker after he helped end the bloody sectarian battles between the ANC and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party.

Zuma also served as the member of the ANC's executive committee for economic affairs in KwaZulu-Natal as well as in other top party posts. He was twice appointed deputy president to Mbeki.

But the two men were clearly rivals and Zuma was stripped of the deputy position on June 14, 2005 after he was implicated in the bribery scandal over an arms deal involving his close friend and financial adviser, Schabir Shaik.

The bribery scandal

Shaik was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison (although he was released early because of a medical condition) for his role in securing a contract for French-made frigates for the South African navy.

The judge at the trial described the Shaik-Zuma relationship as close, indeed almost symbiotic, and as a result Zuma was subsequently charged with 16 counts of fraud, corruption, money laundering and racketeering.

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Lessons in apartheid: Vincent Diba, a tour guide at South Africa's former high-security prison on Robben Island, tells today's students about the prisoner's card, which listed the inmate's ethnic origin along with other information. (Bruce Edwards/CBC) ((Bruce Edwards/CBC))

Zuma claimed the charges were politically motivated on the part of the Mbeki government and, in September 2008, a judge agreed with him, setting aside the case. Zuma supporters in the ANC used that decision to force Mbeki to step aside as president.

The charges were reinstated on appeal in January 2009 but then dropped on April 6, 2009, just weeks before the April 22 national election.

The National Prosecuting Authority cited interference from the prosecutors in the timing of the charges as its reason for dropping them. But Zuma's opponents were outraged, saying the ANC had used its influence to interfere in the process, and demanded that he face a trial.

No less a figure than retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, often considered the conscience of the country, said: "If he is innocent as he has claimed to be, for goodness sake, let it be a court of law that says so."

The battle with Mbeki

The bribery charges weren't Zuma's only controversy.

In fact, he had already come under fierce scrutiny after being charged with raping a 30-year-old woman at his house in November 2005. A judge found the sex was consensual but Zuma was publicly ridiculed for saying he had avoided getting HIV from the infected woman, the daughter of a former comrade-in-arms, by taking a shower.

The trial was headline news in a country that had, at the time, one of the highest known rates of rape in the world, as well as of HIV/AIDS.

Zuma's supporters claimed the rape and corruption charges were part of a political plot to prevent him from succeeding Mbeki as president of South Africa, which had been the ANC tradition. But Zuma was unstoppable and unleashed an intra-party battle against Mbeki that took down his foe.

In December 2007, Zuma won the presidency of the ANC in a bitter struggle, ousting Mbeki and sweeping aside the old guard in favour of his own chosen people.

Disgruntled members of the ANC formed a new party, the Congress of the People (COPE). But it has proven no match for Zuma who promised South Africa's poorest they would no longer be ignored by the state.