Zuma : Gift for Dodging Thorny Issues
South Africa's beleaguered Deputy President Jacob Zuma, facing allegations of bribery in an infamous multi-billion-rand arms deal, is a political veteran with a talent for dodging uncomfortable issues and questions. Born in 1942 in South Africa's eastern Zulu heartland, Zuma was brought up in extreme penury by his widowed mother, a domestic worker.
He missed out on school but taught himself to read and write.
"I didn't have a father and circumstances did not permit me to go to school ... So I took it upon myself to help myself. I would use other people's books and ask lots of questions," he once said.
"People without formal education are looked down upon and often feel shy. But ... I have done everything the educated have done."
Zuma worked as a cowherd to supplement his mother's meagre income but was politically conscious at a young age and joined the now ruling African National Congress (ANC), the continent's oldest liberation movement, when he was 17.
The young activist was arrested in 1963 with a group of 45 new recruits while trying to flee South Africa and sentenced to a decade in jail for conspiring to overthrow the former apartheid government.
After his release, Zuma helped re-establish the ANC underground network in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal but had to leave for exile in two years, working in Swaziland and Mozambique in the turbulent 1970s, when black protests intensified in South Africa.
His star on the ascendant, Zuma rapidly rose through the ranks of the ANC, becoming a member of the national executive in 1977 and with his flair for intelligence work, he was given charge of that department.
But it was also noticed by this time that Zuma had a gift for evading difficult questions.
In a 1999 profile, the Cape Town-based Argus newspaper said that he had "mastered the art of escaping probing questions at a very young age and he appears to have perfected it over the years.
"His new tack when asked about his personal life or his political career is simple but clever: ‘Your question is important, but I will talk about that in my book, because I would not want an unfinished story about me'."
Zuma has maintained a Sphinx-like silence on his alleged role in a corrupt arms deal apart from tersely maintaining his innocence.
The key accused, whose trial begins on Monday, is local businessman Schabir Shaik – Zuma's financial adviser. Shaik is alleged to have paid Zuma a total R1,3m between 1995 and 2001 to use his political influence in helping secure lucrative business deals for Shaik's company, including a controversial arms contract.
Prosecutors plan to present evidence that Shaik not only made dodgy "loans" to Zuma, but also picked up the tab for other expenses totalling more than R1m.
They will also try to prove that Shaik brokered a deal in which French arms manufacturer Thales, formerly known as Thompson CSF, was to pay Zuma R500 000 annually for protection in a probe into suspected irregularities in the arms contract, and Zuma's "permanent support" in future projects.
But President Thabo Mbeki and the ruling party have strongly come out in defence of Zuma, saying there was no concrete evidence of his wrongdoing.
However, the flamboyant politician, who was made deputy president in 1999 and is reportedly in debt, is remembered by colleagues as being careless with money.
"In Swaziland or Mozambique he would hear of a young person crossing the border from South Africa and needing help. He would take money from his pocket and instruct us to give immediate assistance. Official accounting would come later," a former member of the ANC's military wing said.
With acknowledgements to AFP and The Citizen.