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date: 25 April 2019

Zuma, Jacob

A Dictionary of African Politics

Nicholas Cheeseman

Zuma, Jacob (1942– ) 

The president of South Africa between 2009 and 2018. Jacob Zuma was a member of the African National Congress from the age of 17 and was sentenced to ten years in prison in 1963 for conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government. Following his release, Zuma served as deputy president of South Africa from 1999 and 2005, but his relationship with President Thabo Mbeki rapidly deteriorated as a result of their growing personal rivalry. Although Mbeki appeared to have sidelined Zuma on the basis of corruption charges in 2015, this decision was reversed by the High Court in 2006. Thereafter, Zuma effectively outmanoeuvred the president, harnessing widespread dissatisfaction within the party—most notably within the youth league and among the party’s trade union alliance partners—to defeat Mbeki in the election for ANC president at the party’s fifty-second National Conference in 2007. As ANC leader, he subsequently became the South African president when the party won the general elections of 2009. Zuma’s popularity was based on his liberation struggle credentials, his charismatic nature, his self-taught upbringing, and his strong support base among the Zulu community. However, Zuma’s time in office was dogged with controversy. Although he rose to power with the support of trade unionists and the South African Communist Party, he was accused of forming corrupt relations with powerful private interests such as the Gupta family. At the same time, the president faced several judicial prosecutions, including rape charges in 2005—of which he was acquitted—and accusations of corruption relating to the expensive redevelopment of his Nkandla home. Largely as a result, he was the subject of a number of no-confidence motions in parliament. With his two terms in office drawing to an end, Zuma sought to ensure that he would be replaced as ANC president by his former wife, Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma, who could be relied upon to protect his interests. However, she was defeated by Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC National Conference in December 2017, at which point pressure began to build on Zuma to prematurely end his tenure as South African president (his second term was due to be completed in 2019) in the interests of both the party and the country. After initially resisting these calls, Zuma resigned in a speech on 14 February 2018, paving the way for Ramaphosa to assume national office the next day.