It's a remarkable comeback.
In 2005, he was accused of corruption and sacked from his job as deputy president. In 2006, the daughter of an old friend, a woman half his age who is diagnosed as HIV positive, accused him of rape. And now, in the final days of 2007, he is in position to become South Africa's next president.
Delegates of the African National Congress – the vaunted party of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela – overwhelmingly voted controversial firebrand Jacob Zuma in as its new leader Tuesday at a party conference in the northern city of Polokwane.
Mr. Zuma received 2,329 votes, ahead of South African President Thabo Mbeki's 1,505 votes, following one of the most divisive campaigns the traditionally unified party has ever seen.
Because the ANC controls nearly 70 percent of the vote, Zuma's win means he is almost certain to be nominated and emerge victorious in presidential elections scheduled for 2009.
As the pro-Zuma delegates wildly cheered the results, waving arms and banners in the air, Zuma took the stage in a leather jacket and baseball cap, a wide smile on his face, to thank his supporters.
"This is a proud moment for out country," said Dino Ngwala, a cabinet maker in Johannesburg, upon hearing the news. "Someone who truly understands and cares for the people has been chosen."
Born on a farm in the eastern province of Kawzulu-Natal, Zuma is a man who has known and overcome hardship. His father died when he was three and his mother, who worked as a housekeeper, could not afford to keep him in school. He worked odd jobs and joined the ANC at age 17, soon after getting arrested for trying to overthrow the apartheid government.
Zuma spent his 20s incarcerated on Robben Island, alongside Mr. Mandela and others, biding his time and learning to read and write before being released a decade later.
The man known here as "JZ" then spent 12 years in exile in surrounding African countries, eventually becoming the ANC's intelligence chief and later, when the ban on the ANC was lifted in 1990, took on a long list of other positions within the party.
In 1999, his longtime comrade President Mbeki appointed him deputy president of the country. It was neither a posting, nor a friendship, that would last.
A controversial choice
In 2005, Zuma's financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for corruption based on a relationship of "mutually beneficial symbiosis" with the deputy president. Soon after, Mbeki, who had already fallen out with Zuma anyway, unceremoniously fired him, and official corruption charges soon followed.
The corruption trial was thrown out for lack of evidence – but the National Prosecuting Authority has indicated it may revive charges against Zuma within a matter of months. Zuma, who protests that the accusations against him are politically motivated, has said that, nonetheless, if convicted, he would step down. In such a case, Zuma would handpick a successor to become ANC party president.
Corruption is but one image problem Zuma needs to battle. Last year, the daughter of one of his friends, who had been staying with Zuma, accused him of rape. He was found not guilty, but not before Zuma testified that he knowingly (and, he said consensually) had unprotected intercourse with the HIV-positive woman.
Some 5.5 million South Africans are estimated to be HIV-positive, the highest number in the world, and Zuma is chairman of the country's AIDS council.
During his trial last year, Zuma supporters rallied outside the courthouse, attacking the moral standing of Zuma's accuser and chanting "My president."
Perhaps surprisingly, The ANC Women's League endorsed Zuma in this week's elections. The powerful unions, as well as the ANC Youth League, also stood behind Zuma, helping to bring him victory Tuesday.
A vote against Mbeki
"[Zuma] is a patient leader who cares about others," says Goodman Khanyase, the archbishop of the Foundation of the Apostles Congregational Church, who anointed Zuma as a pastor this March. "We anointed him after realizing that he had remarkable leadership qualities."
Others, at greater pains to understand Zuna's success, end up pointing to Mbeki's lack of appeal.
"The people are weary of Mbeki's style and yearn for a more empathetic, communicative leader," says Adam Habib, a political analyst at the University of Johannesburg. "Zuma's greatest asset is Mbeki. This was a vote against him."
Mbeki, who will stay on as president for the time being but be stripped of his role as party leader, has increasingly been criticized as being disconnected from the people, aloof, even hostile. Zuma, a large man with a wide smile and an earthy, approachable manner, has capitalized on his rival's negative image, painting himself as the man of the people.
An ethnic Zulu – unlike both Mr. Mandela and Mbeki, who are from the Xhosa tribe – Zuma often follows traditional ways, wearing Zulu regalia, including a shield and cowhide, when he returns to his rural home. His campaign T-shirts read "100 percent Zulu boy."
The combative campaign Zuma ran against Mbeki – one which would probably have been considered normal in US- style elections, but was highly unusual within the historically united ANC movement – had many here despairing about the party's fractious state.
Some, however, look at the contest and the boisterousness of the party conference and see it as a sign of a healthy democracy. "One of the best possible legacies of the current political turmoil would be the collapse of the de facto one-party state," says Mark Gevisser, author of "Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred," "... and its replacement by a real choice for South African voters."
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.