JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Jacob Zuma took the presidential oath Saturday and became leader of the continent's economic powerhouse after overcoming corruption and sex scandals and a struggle for control of his party.
Zuma, the fourth president since apartheid ended 15 years ago, enjoys a popularity often compared to Nelson Mandela's. Many impoverished black South Africans believe Zuma's personal battles and eventual triumph give him special insight into their own struggles and aspirations.
Zuma survived corruption and sex scandals and an internal power struggle so vicious it led to a split in his African National Congress party. The ANC won last month's parliamentary elections and Zuma was elected president by parliament on Wednesday .
After Zuma signed the oath of office Saturday, a Zulu praise singer in traditional animal skins and pink feathers took to the stage to extoll the virtues of Zuma.
Tens of thousands had broken into spontaneous song when Zuma arrived, beaming, accompanied by his senior wife, Sizakele Khumalo. Zuma's unabashed polygamy has raised questions about which of his three current wives may act as first lady. On Saturday, all three were reported present but only Khumalo accompanied him to the stage, where Zuma dropped down onto his knees before Mandela in a traditional sign of respect.
Sydney Mokoena, a 48-year-old Pretoria high school teacher, roused his 10-year-old daughter, Thula, at 4:30 a.m. to get to the lawns early. He said he admired Zuma for the calm he showed during his legal battles over corruption allegations that have now been dropped and a 2006 rape trial that ended with acquittal.
'Down to earth'
Mokoena also said that while Zuma may not have had much formal education, his leadership of the ANC's intelligence wing during the anti-apartheid struggle was proof he was smart enough to be president.
Zuma will be "a dynamic and vibrant president," Mokoena said. "That's what South Africa needs. He's down to earth and he'll listen."
Mokoena laughed when Thula said she hoped for a glimpse of Mandela. Frail at 90 years old, Mandela makes few appearances, but he arrived for Saturday's inauguration in a golf cart to applause, wolf whistles and the announcer's cheer of "Viva Mandela, Viva."
"We can have three or four or five presidents, people will still be talking about Mandela," Mokoena said.
Mandela and Zuma share rural roots and an easy warmth in crowds, though Zuma's origins are much humbler.
Mandela, 90, has ties to Xhosa tribal royalty and was groomed for leadership from an early age, attending some of the best schools and universities then open to blacks and earning a law degree.
Zuma, 67, herded cows instead of attending school as a boy, began working as a teen to help his impoverished family, and rose through the trade union movement and the African National Congress guerrilla force.
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