South Africa’s parliament elected Jacob Zuma as president today, cheering the astonishing rise of a self-educated teenage goatherder who transformed himself into the leader of Africa’s economic powerhouse.
Mr Zuma will be inaugurated on Saturday, the culmination of a remarkable comeback for the former underground leader who survived prison under the country’s apartheid government, a rape allegation and corruption scandals on his way to the top job.
Mr Zuma, 67, is due to name his government on Sunday – and world markets as well as ordinary people are eager to see whether he will follow the pragmatic path of his predecessors or reach out to his powerful allies in the trade union and communist movements.
Mr Zuma has promised more policies to improve housing, education and services for South Africa’s impoverished black majority who have seen little improvement to their lives in the 15 years since the end of apartheid. He has also warned that the global economic downturn may limit his room for manoeuvring.
His long-dominant ANC party won elections last month giving it 264 seats in the 400-member National Assembly but with less than the two-thirds majority needed to enact major budgetary plans or legislation unchallenged, or change the constitution.
The white-dominated Democratic Alliance party has 67 seats, the Congress of the People or COPE – formed last year by disgruntled ANC members – has 30 seats and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party has 18, with smaller parties making up the balance.
Despite the ANC’s majority, it lost support in the elections to COPE and the Democratic Alliance because of unease about Mr Zuma’s past. Just weeks before the April election, prosecutors dropped long-standing bribery and corruption charges against him because of misconduct by key investigators – although not because they were convinced of his innocence in a big arms scandal.
He was also acquitted of rape in 1996.
In a biography released ahead of the parliamentary session, the ANC emphasised Mr Zuma’s humble origins in rural KwaZulu-Natal. He dropped out of school after the death of his father, studying at night and while herding goats. This experience inspired him to set up an education fund that has since helped educate 20,000 poor children, according to the ANC.
During apartheid, Mr Zuma became active in the banned ANC, was arrested in 1963 and was sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island – the prison where Mr Mandela served decades and which has now become one of South Africa’s top tourist attractions.
In 1975, Mr Zuma went into exile and helped organise ANC resistance to South Africa’s white racist rule, returning home as apartheid crumbled.
For the first time, the ANC biography confirmed that Mr Zuma has three wives - Sizakele, Nompumelelo and Tobeka Madiba – and 19 children “to whom he is very close.”