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What former President Zuma's popularity says about South Africa's political climate

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Three years after Jacob Zuma resigned in disgrace as president, he remains at the center of South African politics. When Zuma was arrested in July for refusing to testify before a corruption inquiry, nationwide protests turned violent and left more than 300 people dead. NPR's Eyder Peralta traveled to Durban in Zuma's home province to report on his enduring popularity and what it means.

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EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: The streets of Durban are one of Jacob Zuma's strongholds. Durban is one of the places where protests against his arrest this summer turned into violent riots. Everyone I spoke to here liked Zuma - a teacher who went to college for free because of his policies, an unlicensed fruit seller who could work without being bothered by police, and this 40-year-old self-proclaimed hustler.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There's a narrative on Zuma. There is some people who don't want the Black president who can share the economy of the country.

PERALTA: To him, Zuma had begun to address South Africa's most pressing and delicate problem, that the white minority still controls most of this country's wealth. Zuma, he says, was raising up Black people. But now he and many others he knows have lost jobs, and he believes the government cares only for business.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We are suffering again because, you see, the president of South Africa is not working for the Black people. He's not working for the white people.

PERALTA: I ask him his name, and he recoils. Like his hero, Zuma, he feels under attack.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: If you support Zuma, you are in big trouble. They arrest you.

PERALTA: Zuma's story begins when he took up arms to fight the apartheid regime. He served 10 years in prison alongside Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. And as a politician after the fall of apartheid, he was pure charisma.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: He danced and led adoring crowds with his signature liberation songs.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: Zuma was elected president in 2009 but stumbled from scandal to scandal and stepped down in disgrace in 2018. Hlonipha Mokoena, a professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, says Zuma is much more than a political figure. In a country where people yearn to access the levers of power and the riches that come with it, he's come to personify the promise of government.

HLONIPHA MOKOENA: They are looking for a human face, and Jacob Zuma has just become that human face.

PERALTA: Much of the country's leadership speaks in inaccessible legalese. Yet Zuma, he is one of them.

MOKOENA: You know, his multiple wives, multiple children and all the drama that the children create - and I think that is more of what South Africans are looking for when they think of a leader, somebody who is flawed in the ways that they are.

PERALTA: So even though Zuma hasn't been in power for three years, many people still flock to his speeches. And as COVID pushed regular South Africans deeper into poverty, they saw Zuma pushed into his own corner. He refused to testify before a commission investigating corruption, and the highest court in the land sentenced him to 15 months in prison.

MOKOENA: So he's almost like the country's soundtrack. We sort of measure our emotional and political life according to the ebb and flow of Jacob Zuma's political career.

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PERALTA: With Jacob Zuma still in prison, we arranged to meet his son, Edward, just outside his father's rural house.

EDWARD ZUMA: Do you not like Jimmy Swaggart?

PERALTA: He arrives full speed in an SUV blasting the music of Jimmy Swaggart, the American televangelist.

ZUMA: I'm not evangelist, but I just like the music. I only believe in Zulus. Any other tribe, I do not believe in.

PERALTA: Edward is his father's son - proudly Black and Zulu in a country once ruled by white supremacists. Edward says his father is beloved because he dared to say that Black people in South Africa are entitled to their fair share of the economy.

ZUMA: We are not saying we're chasing white people away. All we are saying - can the economy be balanced? And it must reflect the majority of the people in the country. In this case, it's the Black people.

PERALTA: Edward Zuma views that fight as entangled with his father's future. Jacob Zuma, he says, has come to represent the end of white dominance in South Africa. And if his father isn't released and if white economic dominance doesn't end, this country, he says, will not survive.

ZUMA: And they must not think we are joking. If these people do not release Jacob Zuma, there will be civil war in this country. There will be civil war in this country, and it's going to be very bad.

PERALTA: A few days after our conversation, the government seemed to relent. A prison official granted Zuma medical parole for the remainder of his sentence. But Zuma's corruption trial is just about to kick off, and it is a guarantee the whole nation will be wrapped. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.