SA lawmakers elect Zuma

CAPE TOWN: South Africa's parliament elected Jacob Zuma as president Wednesday, celebrating with cheers the astonishing rise of a self-educated teenage goatherder who transformed himself into the charismatic leader of Africa's economic powerhouse.

Zuma will be inaugurated Saturday, the culmination of a remarkable comeback for the former underground leader who survived prison under the country's apartheid government, a rape allegation and corruption scandals on his way to the top job.

"I nominate for the president of the Republic of South Africa .... the man of the people: Mr. Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma," said Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of South Africa's anti-apartheid hero, Nelson Mandela.

Parliament, heavily dominated by Zuma's African National Congress party, broke out in rapturous applause.

Zuma, 67, is due to name his government Sunday — and world markets as well as ordinary people are eager to see whether he will follow the pragmatic market-oriented path of his predecessors or reach out to his powerful allies in the trade union and communist movements.

Zuma has promised more pro-poor policies to improve housing, education and services for South Africa's impoverished black majority who have seen little improvement to their lives in the 15 years since the end of apartheid. Still, he has also warned that the global economic downturn may limit his room for maneuvering.

His long-dominant ANC party won elections last month with 65.9 percent of the vote, giving it 264 seats in the 400 member National Assembly but with less than the two-thirds majority needed to enact major budgetary plans or legislation unchallenged, or change the constitution.

The white-dominated Democratic Alliance party has 67 seats, the Congress of the People or COPE — formed last year by disgruntled ANC members — has 30 seats and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party has 18, with smaller parties making up the balance.

COPE nominated its own leader Mvume Dandala for president, saying he stood for "defense of our democracy, defense of the constitution and a commitment to deal with issues of corruption." But Zuma easily defeated him 277 votes to 47. The Democratic Alliance abstained.

Despite the ANC's majority, it lost support in the elections to COPE and the Democratic Alliance because of unease about Zuma's past. Just weeks before the April election, prosecutors dropped long-standing bribery and corruption charges against him because of misconduct by key investigators — although not because they were convinced of his innocence in a big arms scandal.

He was also acquitted of rape in 1996.

Madikizela-Mandela said Zuma has proved he could triumph over all obstacles.

"He is a capable leader that epitomizes our continued and resilient struggle against the worst that humanity has to offer and the hope that we as a nation shall triumph against all odds because of the best that we collectively can offer," she told parliament.

Opposition parties unsuccessfully challenged Madikizela-Mandela's nomination to parliament because of her criminal convictions. In 1991, she was sentenced to six years in jail for her role in a kidnapping case. The sentence was reduced to a fine on appeal, but she was later convicted of fraud and theft charges.

Yet both Madikizela-Mandela and Zuma command huge loyalty among poor South Africans who felt alienated by the aloofness and intellect of former President Thabo Mbeki.

In a biography released ahead of the parliamentary session, the ANC emphasized Zuma's humble origins in rural KwaZulu-Natal. He dropped out of school after the death of his father, studying at night and while herding goats. This experience inspired him to set up an education fund that has since helped educate 20,000 poor children, according to the ANC.

During apartheid, Zuma became active in the banned ANC, was arrested in 1963 and was sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island — the prison where Mandela served decades and which has now become one of South Africa's top tourist attractions.

In 1975, Zuma went into exile and helped organize ANC resistance to South Africa's white racist rule, returning home as apartheid crumbled.

For the first time, the ANC biography confirmed that Zuma has three wives — Sizakele, Nompumelelo and Tobeka Madiba — and 19 children "to whom he is very close." The official biography offered no more details on the children.

Zuma is a traditionalist member of the Zulu tribe, which allows men to have more than one wife. He has also had two other wives — Kate Mantsho Zuma, who committed suicide in 2000, and Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, from whom he was divorced in 1998.

Dlamini Zuma is the country's foreign affairs minister in the departing Cabinet and is expected to join her former husband's new administration.

The ANC also quoted from Zuma's own forthcoming autobiography

"I have never failed to learn from my mistakes, nor repeat them, nor pretend I never committed them in the first place," he wrote. "I am made of sterner stuff, even if I say so myself. I am tempted to say I know no man alive who has witnessed the struggles that I have survived. They may have come close but not what I have gone through."