He has been accused of stealing $26 million, raping a woman, promoting the spread of AIDS, and having 21 children with six different women. Whether he is talking about “confiscating babies” or “knocking out the gays,” Jacob Zuma knows how to get attention. Zuma’s mess of controversial decisions and statements on AIDS, rape, polygamy, and corruption have kept the South African president’s life eventful. He has been called the “people’s president” but the people are greatly divided on him.
It has been one controversy after the next for President Zuma and the latest disaster has his critics demanding his resignation. The public has been in an uproar since the news was leaked that Zuma spent more than $21 million on so-called security renovations. The new security features on his sprawling mansion include a swimming pool and an amphitheater. Zuma camp officials have been hard-pressed to provide evidence that any part of this bloated security project has increased the Zuma compound’s safety.
Even after his millionth misstep, it appears that Zuma will never lose his devoted following. He is relatable and it seems that can get you everywhere in politics. Zuma grew up in poverty in rural South Africa. His mother was a widow and he never had any formal education. It’s a rag-to-riches story that has been eaten up by South Africans who grew up in similar conditions.
Zuma joined the African National Congress (ANC) when he was 17 to push forward their mission of a non-sexist, non-racial, democratic Africa. He later waited away a decade of apartheid with Nelson Mandela in Robben Island prison.
Zuma moved his way up the ANC ladder despite a mess of rape and corruption charges. In October 2005, he was charged with money-laundering and racketeering. In December 2005, the then 63-year-old Zuma was charged with raping a 31-year-old family friend.
The rape case turned into an international PR nightmare when Zuma’s disregard for AIDS prevention became clear. In a nation where 10 percent of the population are HIV positive, prevention and treatment are serious issues.
It was revealed that Zuma knew his alleged victim was HIV positive yet he chose not to wear a condom. He explained that he took a shower after having sex with her so he “would minimize the risk of contracting the disease [HIV].”
His dangerously miseducated view on HIV prevention spread anger around the world. According to Vicci Tallis of the Gender AIDS Forum, “statements like that can throw years of hard work down the drain.” The corruption and rape charges, however, were later dropped and Zuma became President of South Africa two weeks later.
After being elected, Zuma made periodic attempts to win over his critics. In December 2010, he announced an overhaul in South Africa’s AIDS policy. This overhaul dramatically increased the number of people with access to anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs and doubled the number of HIV-positive South Africans with access to lifesaving medication.
The initiative was part of a much needed broader change to South Africa’s health care system. The nation’s life expectancy rate had fallen 10 years from 1994 to 2010. Fortunately for South Africa and Zuma, the policy changes have worked and the average life expectancy is now back up to 60 years old.
As news of his latest scandal spreads around the world, time will tell if he can devise another scheme to quiet his critics. After a life full of AIDS, rape, polygamy, and corruption scandals, it seems like this president might be able to find a way through any challenge.
By Nicci Mende