It's a wonder Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma still has a political career. Since 2005, he has been sacked as Deputy President of South Africa, tried and acquitted of rape and embroiled in a corruption scandal over defense contracts. He is uneducated, has somewhere from two to six wives (he refuses to confirm the exact number) and has 17 children by nine women. And at rallies of his supporters, he sings the Zulu anthem Mshini wami, which translates as "Bring me my machine gun."
Yet Zuma, 65, is the front runner to succeed Thabo Mbeki as President of South Africa. Mbeki has two years left in his second term--the constitution bars him from a third. In December, Zuma will try to replace him as president of the African National Congress (ANC), which has dominated politics since, under Nelson Mandela, it was instrumental in ending apartheid in 1994. If Zuma wins the party presidency at the ANC conference in the northern city of Polokwane, he is all but assured of elevation to South Africa's highest office in 2009. The only man who could beat Zuma to the party post is the incumbent, but though Mbeki has declared that he is willing to serve again, he has been weakened by a series of political missteps. The prospect of a Zuma presidency or two more years under the lame-duck Mbeki so alarms some in the party's old guard that they are scrambling to nominate alternatives, including ANC stalwarts turned businessmen Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa.
Why the panic over Zuma? South Africa's élite suspect he's a wannabe strongman in the mold of the rulers in much of postcolonial Africa to the north. Many senior ANC figures regard Zuma with open disdain. Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota, an Mbeki supporter, recently warned that anyone who still sang Mshini wami was "not right in the head." Zuma, a heavyset man with an easy charm and ready laugh, dismisses his critics as out of touch with ordinary South Africans. "The majority in this country have not seen anything wrong with Zuma," he told TIME earlier this year. "I go with the overwhelming feeling of this country. If the majority say, 'Zuma, do this,' I will do it."
Zuma was born in the poor, sparsely populated area of Inkandla in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal. His policeman father died when Zuma was 3, and his mother found work as a domestic servant in Durban. Zuma was working full-time doing odd jobs by 15. His elder brother was an ANC member, and at 17 Zuma joined too. In 1963 he was arrested, convicted of trying to overthrow the apartheid government and sentenced to 10 years. After his release, Zuma helped organize underground resistance to apartheid, eventually becoming the ANC's intelligence chief.
This tale of triumph over adversity accounts for much of Zuma's appeal with the masses. So does his plainspokenness. He says he fought apartheid not for lofty ideals like racial equality, justice and democracy but because "I was oppressed." He panders to popular prejudices, calling same-sex marriage a "disgrace to the nation and to God" and boasting that when he was a boy, he would "knock out" homosexuals. Crucially, he benefits from his position as an outsider. Many ANC supporters are unhappy with what they claim is the government's pursuit of economic growth over equality: millions of South Africans still live in the same tin-roof townships to which they were confined under apartheid. A target of particular outrage has been the emergence of a moneyed black élite around the party leadership--people like Sexwale and Ramaphosa.
As an ANC leader disowned by his more refined colleagues, Zuma has become a champion of the disappointed. His supporters gathered by the thousands outside the courthouse during his rape trial. In June, when public-sector workers went on strike for several weeks, they chanted Zuma's name at rallies. He has the official endorsements of the ANC's powerful Youth League and the party's partners, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. He has also been trying to widen his appeal. After meeting local business leaders in September, Zuma told TIME, "If international businesspeople are concerned about the economic stability of a post-2009 South Africa, they would be well advised to speak to me."
His biggest obstacle remains Mbeki. When Zuma's financial adviser was convicted of corruption related to defense contracts in 2005, Mbeki sacked Zuma as Deputy President. And this year Mbeki has actively campaigned against Zuma. When a top party leader behaves like a "rascal," he told Parliament, "I can stand firm ... and say, 'This one cannot lead.'" But Mbeki's own leadership has been called into question in recent months. In August he was widely condemned for dismissing the highly regarded Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge after she disagreed with her boss, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang--an Mbeki ally who recommends garlic and beets for treating AIDS. (The President himself is famously skeptical that HIV causes AIDS.) In late September, Mbeki outraged the country again by sacking the head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Vusi Pikoli, who had issued an arrest warrant for another Mbeki ally, the country's top policeman, Jackie Selebi. A thumbs-down from the beleaguered President may just be the perfect endorsement for Zuma.