Loved by the black masses, feared by the whites

The caricature of Jacob Zuma overseas is of a stereotypical, violent African polygamist. Many white South Africans see him as a rising dictator, but the majority see him as one of their own.

The caricature of Jacob Zuma overseas is of a stereotypical, violent African polygamist. Many white South Africans see him as a rising dictator, but the majority see him as one of their own.

The ANC leader is almost certain to be elected president tomorrow.

Democratic South Africa's fourth president is also certain to be its most controversial - in part because he does not compromise on embracing local culture without the usual nods to Western norms.

At 67 Zuma attends traditional ceremonies in ethnic Zulu dress of leopard skins. He professes his love for his two wives and his 18 children. He dances and sings Umshini Wami.

Years of legal haggling over corruption allegations, in a case finally dropped, has left a cloud of doubt hanging over him.

After a childhood herding cattle in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal, he rose to the top ranks despite a fierce rivalry with former president Thabo Mbeki, who sacked him as deputy president in 2005.

With the support of the poor masses who felt ignored by Mbeki and buoyed by the organisation skills of his allies in Cosatu and the SACP, Zuma snatched the ANC leadership in 2007.

His biographer Jeremy Gordin believes the ANC's leftwing was alienated by British-educated Mbeki's elitism.

But self-taught Zuma openly confronts the "modernist prejudices" of urban intellectuals, says analyst Xolela Mangcu.

"Zuma is frightening to some people, especially whites, because he comes from a world of which they are not part," Gordin said.

A recent poll showed that blacks rate Zuma 7,7 out of 10 while whites rate him at 1,9.

If he embodies the hopes of the disappointed, it is because he is endowed with a rare capacity for empathy - a gift that emerges when he addresses crowds or makes time to speak with anyone in Nkandla.

"He is simply a man of great charm - and innately respectful of others," Gordin wrote.

But his gift has a flip side.

"He listens to everyone around him and that blurs his judgement," an ANC insider says.

He is also a sharp negotiator who played a key role in the difficult transition to democracy here in the 1990s, and in the peace process in Burundi. - Sapa-AP

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