He's a charming former rebel intelligence chief and a working class hero for the ideological left. He's a 64-year-old power broker for his ethnic Zulu tribe, and a man who has recently survived a crushing one-two punch of rape charges and a corruption trial.
Meet Jacob Zuma: He may be the next president of South Africa.
Few politicians would be able to appreciate the turnaround of fortune in Mr. Zuma's climb to power within the African National Congress, the largest party in South Africa, which has consistently held power since the end of apartheid in 1994. But with a court decision this week to postpone indefinitely a corruption trial against Zuma, South Africa's most controversial black leader has become the odds-on favorite to succeed President Thabo Mbeki, should Mr. Mbeki step down from his post, as expected, at an ANC leadership conference next year.
"Jacob Zuma is in a stronger position than he was in yesterday," says Aubrey Matshiqi, a former ANC member and government spokesman and now a senior analyst at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. "If the damage to his reputation does not extend to the rank and file (of the ANC), then he will emerge as the strongest candidate and most likely be elected president of the ANC in 2007," and the party's probable candidate for the president of the country in 2009.
With South Africa's booming economy in the balance, any transfer of power here is bound to gain international attention. Markets responded quickly to the news of Zuma's postponed trial, and the rand dropped sharply in value, from 7.3 to 7.4 to the US dollar. Yet while political analysts expect Zuma's rising political fortunes to set off a volatile leadership struggle over the next year, few expect any major changes in economic or social policies, even if South Africa's leading advocate of the political left comes to power.
"If you read the local media, you'd get the impression that [Zuma's leadership] would bring Zimbabwe in 24 hours," says Steven Friedman, a research associate at the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa, a think tank in Johannesburg. "But you've got to remember that the coalition behind Zuma is very diverse," with leftist trade unions and ethnic Zulus who would have very different agendas.
"I don't think who wins is the issue," says Mr. Friedman. "I think the question is how the battle is fought."
Judging by the many trials of Jacob Zuma, the battle has been quite ugly and personal thus far.
Questions first emerged in 2001 from press reports alleging that Zuma had sought a 500,000-rand (about $66,000) bribe from the French arms company Thales for his role in pushing through the government's purchase of four corvette ships built by Thales. In June 2005, the corruption scandal had led to the arrest and conviction of Zuma's close friend and financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, who had reportedly used Zuma's influence to seal the arms deal.
After Mr. Shaik's conviction, Zuma was relieved of his duties as deputy president of South Africa and was subsequently charged with corruption himself. These charges remain pending.
But Zuma's political future took an even more painful turn in December 2005, when a 31-year-old family friend filed rape charges against him.
The circuslike atmosphere of the 23-day trial this spring, both inside and outside the Johannesburg courtroom, led to lurid press accounts and split public opinion along class and racial lines.
Zuma was acquitted at the end. But the rape trial split not only South African society but also his party, with Mbeki loyalists and the business community on one side, calling for the court process to run its course, and Zuma's supporters claiming that the entire trial was a conspiracy to deny Zuma the ANC presidency.
Zuma's legal troubles are not behind him, of course.
The corruption charges could emerge at any time, once prosecutors believe they have enough evidence to make their case.
And while Zuma's supporters in the COSATU, a trade-union coalition, and the South African Communist Party, see Zuma as their best advocate in the ANC leadership, few expect Zuma to reverse the generally pro-business economic policies of the Mbeki government.
"What we are likely to see is an all-out war in the succession battle" between supporters for Mbeki and Zuma, says Mr. Matshiqi.
But while Mbeki's leadership of the party is now "severely compromised," Matshiqi says, "we are unlikely to see major changes of policy, no matter who takes control. Whoever is elected after Mbeki will have to struggle with the conflict over policy, and bring leadership over many different factions."
If that leader is Jacob Zuma, says Matshiqi, "he will have very little room to maneuver."