PRETORIA, South Africa – Jacob Zuma took power Saturday in the culmination of an extraordinary political comeback, pledging to Nelson Mandela and the nation to renew the spirit of commitment and hope of South Africa’s first black presidency.
Zuma was once imprisoned under apartheid and spent years in exile before surviving corruption and sex scandals and a party power struggle to reach the nation’s highest office. He has been embraced by many South Africans with a fervor usually reserved for Mandela.
The elder statesman was cheered as he arrived for the inauguration in a golf cart to join the 5,000 VIP guests and tens of thousands of ordinary South Africans who had gathered for the ceremony.
In a speech after taking the oath, Zuma looked back to 1994, when Mandela became president after leading the campaign that defeated apartheid.
“We gather here determined to renew that most solemn undertaking, to build a society in which all people are freed from the shackles of discrimination, exploitation, want and disease,” Zuma said.
He now leads Africa’s economic powerhouse, but it is a country where at least a quarter of the work force is unemployed and 1,000 people die of AIDS every day.
Zuma promises to speed up delivery of houses, clinics, schools, running water and electricity. But he also has acknowledged the difficulties amid a global economic meltdown. According to government figures, 208,000 jobs were lost during the last quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009.
“Jobs are being lost in every economy across the world. We will not be spared the negative impact, and are beginning to feel the pinch,” Zuma said Saturday. “However, the foundations of our economy are strong, and we will need to continue to build on them.”
Zuma, a 67-year-old former guerrilla fighter and intelligence chief of the African National Congress, led his ANC party to an overwhelming parliamentary victory in April. Parliament elected him president on Wednesday.
Many impoverished black South Africans believe Zuma’s personal battles and eventual triumph give him special insight into their own struggles and aspirations.
Zuma once herded livestock in the rural Zulu heartland. His father was a policeman who died when Zuma was a boy. His mother worked as a maid in the coastal city of Durban. Zuma was denied a formal education and by 15 he was doing odd jobs to help support his family.
He joined the ANC in 1959 and by 21 he was arrested while trying to leave the country illegally. Zuma was jailed for 10 years on Robben Island, alongside Mandela and other heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle. It was there that he continued with his schooling and began making a name for himself among ANC prisoners.