South Africa’s president has survived a rape trial, corruption charges and many bids to oust him

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, pictured at celebrations for his 75th birthday last month, is the ultimate survivor, defeating efforts in his to oust him.
(JOHN WESSELS / AFP/Getty Images)

South African President Jacob Zuma, a political survivor, beat a weekend bid to topple him by members of the governing African National Congress party.

It was the second failed attempt to oust him since November.

But that’s not all. He has survived multiple no-confidence votes in Parliament, a rape trial, corruption charges, a court finding that he breached the country’s constitution, attacks from elders of his party, his country’s downgrade to junk status, condemnation by church leaders and even an alleged plot to poison him.

At the heart of most of the bids to get rid of him are allegations that Zuma allowed a family of Indian businessmen in South Africa, the Guptas, to get a huge slice of government business without proper tenders. The family’s influence is so pervasive that critics claim they have “captured” the state of South Africa. The Gupta family has denied any wrongdoing.

The ANC’s national executive committee discussed calls for Zuma to resign over the weekend. On Monday, the party announced that most party members either supported him or felt the party should strive for unity.

Zuma, the son of a domestic worker, did not go to school as a boy but tried to teach himself using other children’s schoolbooks. He learned to read and write when he was incarcerated for 10 years on Robben Island prison for his political activities as a member of the ANC, which was banned under apartheid. A former intelligence chief for the ANC in exile, he maintains control over the majority of the national executive committee, defeating efforts to overthrow him.

In a tumultuous career, the 75-year-old Zuma has survived many challenges. Here are some of them:

Zuma’s legal problems: A rape trial, 783 corruption charges and a constitutional breach

Supporters cheer Jacob Zuma after his acquittal on rape charges in 2006, clearing the way for him to become party president. (Dennis Farrell / Associated Press)

Before he was elected South African president, Zuma had to overcome some formidable legal obstacles. In 2005, a 31-year-old woman, the daughter of a man who had served in Robben Island prison with Zuma, accused Zuma of rape. Zuma admitted to unprotected sex with her, although he knew she was HIV-positive, but said it was consensual. He was acquitted of rape in 2006.

Zuma was charged with corruption in connection with a 1998 multibillion-dollar arms deal, but prosecutors dropped the case in 2009, just weeks before national elections. The charges may come back to haunt him. A South African court ruled last year that Zuma should still face the 783 corruption charges, a decision he was unsuccessful in trying to appeal.

Last year, South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruled that Zuma breached the constitution by refusing to repay state funds used to upgrade his private residence at Nkandla, in rural KwaZulu-Natal. He apologized, repaid the money — about $600,000 — and survived a subsequent parliamentary vote of no confidence, one of many against him.

South Africa gets junk status ratings after Zuma sacks the finance minister

Members of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters party at a protest calling for the resignation of President Jacob Zuma last month. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP/Getty Images)

Several international ratings agencies downgraded South Africa’s credit rating to junk after Zuma sacked the finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, seen by many as someone who could protect the state coffers from Zuma and his allies.

Gordhan warned that South Africa was in danger of becoming a kleptocratic state. His deputy Mcebisi Jonas, also sacked, claimed that state funds were being stolen to benefit a small elite.

The accusations center on the Gupta family, who are in business with Zuma’s son, Duduzane. An ombudsman’s report last year alleged the family had offered bribes to government officials, influenced Cabinet appointments and gained massive government contracts. The family denies any wrongdoing.

Opposition parties and civil society groups staged mass protest rallies in Johannesburg after the Gordhan and Jonas dismissals and the ratings downgrades.

The opposition plans a parliamentary vote of no confidence in Zuma, but lawmakers of the majority ANC have always voted in support of their leader in other similar votes.

Opposition parties have taken court action to try to force a secret ballot in the vote in the hope that ANC lawmakers would break party discipline and vote against Zuma, which would topple the president.

The mysterious plot to poison President Zuma

President Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama, with South African President Jacob Zuma and Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma, one of his wives, at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh in 2009. After he fell ill in 2014, Zuma accused his wife of taking part in a plot to poison him. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)
(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

In June 2014, Zuma was hospitalized after he fell severely ill, later accusing one of his wives, Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma, of taking part in a plot to poison him.

In August the same year, Zuma traveled to the U.S. for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit accompanied by Ntuli-Zuma. Still feeling ill, he consulted a doctor and was told he had probably been poisoned, local media reported. He later got a second opinion from Russian doctors, according to the report.

Zuma ordered Ntuli-Zuma to leave his rural homestead at Nkandla and his official residence and banned her from traveling with him. Police opened an investigation against her in 2015, according to her lawyer. In November, prosecutors told her she remained a suspect in a conspiracy to murder the president.

Ntuli-Zuma’s lawyer, Ulrich Roux, last year told journalists that the accusations were without substance and were deeply traumatic for her.

Most observers assumed the matter was personal. But when members of the ANC’s national executive committee tried to oust him as president in November, Zuma told the meeting that his enemies had three times tried to kill him using poison, according to local media.

Still facing corruption charges, what are Zuma’s options?

South African presidential contender and former chairwoman of the African Union Commission Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at a meeting of the African National Congress Youth League last month. Zuma's critics fear that if elected she would try to shield him from prosecution. (Rajesh Jantilal / AFP/Getty Images)
South African presidential contender and former chairwoman of the African Union Commission Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at a meeting of the African National Congress Youth League last month. Zuma’s critics fear that if elected she would try to shield him from prosecution. (Rajesh Jantilal / AFP/Getty Images)

Zuma’s supporters in the ANC are pushing for his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to succeed him. The former African Union chairwoman is close to her ex-husband and it is believed she would protect the family’s sprawling business interests, as well as attempt to shield him from prosecution.

Although South Africa has a strong, independent judiciary, ANC leaders have used law enforcement agencies such as police, prosecutors and intelligence agencies to smear or prosecute political rivals.

Reports surfaced in South African media over the weekend that Zuma might be planning a strategic exit to Dubai if necessary — allegations strongly denied by the president.

South African media reported an email from an executive of a Gupta-owned business to Duduzane, Zuma’s son, containing a draft letter from the president to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, with a request to make Dubai his second home.

Zuma's spokesman, Bongani Ngqulunga, quoted him as saying the letter was “pure fabrication.”

“I have my home in Nkandla and I have no intention of living anywhere else. When I retire I will go home to Nkandla,” Zuma said.