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Zuma Overcomes Numerous Challenges to Lead South Africa

Preliminary returns from South Africa's elections indicate that the African National Congress is set to win Wednesday's national elections making its leader, Jacob Zuma, the country's likely next president.

The president of South Africa's ruling African National Congress, Jacob Zuma, leads the crowd in an anti-apartheid song, called We Are Moving Forward, during a rally Sunday in Johannesburg.

Zuma also likes to dance at his rallies and when he speaks in the Zulu language, as during this rally in his home region, his remarks are peppered with local proverbs and sayings.

He asks what has the ANC done right since the end of apartheid in 1994 and what has it done wrong? He says we should sit down and discuss our record and address any failures.

His road to the summit of South African politics has not been easy, marked by humble beginnings, the struggle against apartheid and political and legal battles.

Although he is reviled by some South Africans, his charm and common touch has endeared him to many, especially those who have benefited the least from South Africa's 15 years of freedom and prosperity.

Jacob Zuma was born on April 12, 1942, in Nkandla, a rural area in Kwa Zulu-Natal province some 100 kilometers north of Durban.

His father, a policeman, died when he was five years old and his mother struggled to feed the family.

Zuma received little formal education. Instead he herded cattle as a boy and worked odd jobs. He became involved in politics and joined the African National Congress when he was 17 years old.

In 1963 he was detained by the apartheid authorities while trying to flee South Africa for military training. He served 10 years in prison on Robben Island with many other anti-apartheid leaders.

After his release, he worked with the resistance inside South Africa until going into exile in 1975.

Zuma spent the next 15 years in Swaziland, Mozambique and Zambia. He served in the intelligence service of the ANC's armed wing and rose rapidly through the ranks.

When the ban on the ANC was lifted in 1990 he returned home to participate in the negotiations that led to the release of political prisoners and the return of many exiles.

After the end of apartheid in 1994, Zuma served in the Kwa Zulu-Natal provincial government and helped mediate an end to the violence between supporters of the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party of Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

He was elected deputy-president of the ANC in 1997 and two years later was appointed deputy president in the government of then-President Thabo Mbeki.

But Zuma's rise has not been without controversy. His legal woes began in 2005 when he was charged with corruption. The charges were dropped and then re-instated in 2006. That same year he was acquitted of raping an HIV-positive friend after a sensationalized trial, during which he said he took a shower to avoid being infected with the deadly virus.

The latest corruption case was dropped two weeks ago by prosecutors who decided there had been political interference in the investigation.

Mr. Zuma told supporters he felt vindicated, although his opponents said they would continue to pursue the matter in court.

"My conscience is clear," said Jacob Zuma. "I have not committed any crime against the state or the people of South Africa. I had no difficulty with responding to the charges, as I knew they were baseless."

Zuma's five marriages and many children have been criticized by some South Africans who feel this projects a poor image and sets a bad example in a country with one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world.

But he has been embraced by many South Africans who see nothing wrong with his traditional lifestyle.

Mr. Zuma likes to close his public appearances with his favorite struggle song, Bring Me My Machine Gun, which also makes some people uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, dancing with his fist clenched above his head as if holding an imaginary weapon, he celebrates his traditional roots and his defiance of adversity.