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Once an uneducated Zulu traditionalist living in poverty, the former South African leader was known for his smiling image during his time in power – but behind the shiny surface lay a ruthless master tactician who demolished his foes, Geoffrey York writes

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma leaves the room after announcing his resignation in Pretoria on Wednesday. The African National Congress pushed Mr. Zuma out of office after nearly a decade as president.

To understand the rise and fall of Jacob Zuma, begin with his middle name: Gedleyihlekisa. In the Zulu language, it can be roughly translated as: "The one who hurts you while smiling with you."

As the name suggests, Mr. Zuma has always led a double life. His public persona was humble and good-humoured: He portrayed himself as a simple man of the people, an uneducated Zulu traditionalist who grew up in rural poverty and somehow charmed his way into South Africa's highest office for the past nine years. He ridiculed the urban intellectuals who looked down on him – the "clever blacks," as he mockingly called them.

Behind this smiling image, however, was a shrewd and ruthless man who demolished his enemies. He loved to play chess – another key to his personality. He kept confidential dossiers on his rivals. He courted friendships with powerful businessmen. He was a master tactician, a veteran of the secret worlds of intelligence and counterintelligence.

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The double identity drove his political career. It meant that he was always underestimated by his rivals. With supreme confidence, he laughed at his critics and rebounded from disastrous setbacks that would have destroyed a lesser politician. He chuckled gleefully at the insults that his foes hurled at him in Parliament, then had them violently evicted by thuggish bouncers.

In the end, the double life caught up with him. Leaked e-mails and whistle-blowing insiders revealed high-level corruption scandals that left him dangerously exposed. Investigators uncovered the networks of secret financiers and business partners around him. His popularity sank and public outrage grew. His challenger, Cyril Ramaphosa, exploited the mood by campaigning on an anti-corruption pledge. He rose to the top of the ruling party – and has now pushed Mr. Zuma out of office.

As the scandals grew worse, South Africans finally saw beneath the modest façade of their president. They saw a politician who could not resist the temptations of power and money. They grew weary of the corruption of his government. And they gave Mr. Ramaphosa the political support that he needed to boot him out.

Jacob Zuma was born in 1942 in the village of Nkandla in what is now KwaZulu-Natal province. His father was a policeman who died when Jacob was four years old. His mother left him with his grandparents and moved to the port city of Durban, where she found jobs as a domestic worker.

ANC supporters rally in support of ANC president Jacob Zuma during an event in Khayelitsha, South Africa, in 2009.

Like many rural children under apartheid, he was obliged to leave school after Grade 5 because he was needed on the farm. He herded his grandfather's cattle and goats, while excelling at stick-fighting, a traditional Zulu game. He taught himself to read by borrowing the textbooks of other children in the evenings. As an adolescent, he visited his mother in Durban, and then roamed around the city streets, searching for odd jobs to support his mother.

Inspired by childhood stories of Zulu rebellions, he became more aware of the apartheid injustices around him. He was influenced by an older brother who was active in trade unions and the African National Congress, the biggest anti-apartheid organization. He joined the ANC at the age of 17, and then became a fighter in its military wing after the ANC was banned. He was arrested in 1963 and spent the next 10 years at the notorious Robben Island prison, where Nelson Mandela was also jailed.

After his release, Mr. Zuma went into exile in 1975. For the next 15 years, he was based in Swaziland, Mozambique and Zambia, where he worked in the ANC's exiled underground organization to support its secret operations inside South Africa, including the training of recruits and the planning of armed incursions against the apartheid state.

This was where he developed the penchant for secret dossiers and covert activities that marked the rest of his political career. In 1978, he journeyed to the Soviet Union for three months of military training. In the 1980s, he became a top leader of the ANC's intelligence department, where he specialized in counterintelligence against suspected spies and infiltrators. He was also a member of the Central Committee of the banned South African Communist Party, using the alias "Pedro."

Little is known about this mysterious period in his career, but historians believe Mr. Zuma was heavily involved in the ANC's dreaded security department, popularly known as Mbokodo – "the stone that crushes."

In a bestselling book last year, South African author Jacques Pauw cited evidence that two members of the ANC's armed wing were tortured and murdered after being imprisoned in the ANC security department in Zambia while it was under Mr. Zuma's command.

" Zuma illustrated that, if necessary, he is prepared to trample on the blood and bones of his own to achieve his goals," Mr. Pauw wrote in his book, The President's Keepers. "The skills and skulduggery Zuma learned as ANC intelligence chief have helped him to endure as president. As the head of intelligence, Zuma became skilled in the art of neutralizing traitors and incapacitating opponents."

Former South African president Nelson Mandela, left, celebrates his 91st birthday alongside long-time friend Jacob Zuma in Johannesburg in 2009.

When the apartheid government finally ended its banning of the ANC in 1990 and its imprisoned leader Mr. Mandela was freed, Mr. Zuma was one of the first exiled ANC leaders to return to South Africa to participate in negotiations on the end of apartheid. In the early 1990s, he used his Zulu connections and negotiating skills to ease the violent clashes between Zulu factions. It became clear that he was moving fast up the ANC hierarchy.

Ronnie Kasrils, an anti-apartheid activist who went on covert missions with Mr. Zuma in exile in the 1980s and later became a cabinet minister, remembers how Mr. Mandela asked him for his opinion of Mr. Zuma in 1991. In a book last year, he recalls that he told the ANC leader that Mr. Zuma was "too ethnically inclined and conservative, and ultra-suspicious in security matters."

But his warning did not derail Mr. Zuma's ascent. In 1991, the ANC chose him as its deputy secretary-general. Three years later, he became a minister in the provincial government in KwaZulu-Natal.

In the meantime, an ANC commission was investigating the abuses that occurred in its detention camps in exile. It concluded in 1993 that the ANC had committed torture in these camps, and it criticized Mr. Zuma for failing to prevent the abuses.

He remained popular in the party, however, and became its deputy leader in 1997. Two years later, he was appointed as the country's deputy president.

By that time, he had perfected his political formula. As a Zulu traditionalist who practised polygamy and Zulu tribal dancing in leopard-pelt warrior gear, he appealed to many South Africans who felt that their culture had been suppressed by apartheid. As an ally of trade unions and the Communist Party, he persuaded others that he would introduce radical policies to bring economic justice to the impoverished black majority.

He was a popular and charismatic figure at ANC rallies, dancing and singing liberation songs. Some of his followers called him "Black Jesus." His unofficial theme song was the guerrilla anthem Umshini Wami (Bring Me My Machine Gun), which he sang enthusiastically at rallies. It helped him remind voters of his long years in the liberation movement.

Jacob Zuma sings to supporters in Soweto, South Africa, in 2006.

But as always, there was a dark reality beneath this image. After his many years of frugal life in exile, he needed money for an extravagant new life in South Africa, and he was secretly becoming dependent on financial sponsors, who often had their own interests in government business.

"He had returned to South Africa with nothing; had not had the opportunity to cash in, as many others in the movement had; had numerous wives and children to take care of; and had to start upgrading his 'lifestyle' in all ways – as had become de rigeur for the new leaders to do in the new South Africa," his biographer Jeremy Gordin wrote.

In a corruption case that emerged years later, evidence showed that Mr. Zuma had accepted hundreds of payments from a long-time friend, businessman Schabir Shaik, from 1999 to 2005, at a time when a company founded by Mr. Shaik was winning a share of business in a multibillion-dollar government weapons deal. In 2005, Mr. Shaik was sentenced to 15 years in prison for soliciting bribes and other payments for Mr. Zuma from an arms contractor. Corruption charges were filed against Mr. Zuma, too.

A few days after the Shaik conviction, president Thabo Mbeki fired Mr. Zuma from the position of deputy president. And a few months after that, Mr. Zuma was charged with rape. He was accused of a sexual attack on the 31-year-old daughter of one of his comrades. Many people assumed his career was over.

Astonishingly, he bounced back. His supporters were more fervent than ever. They saw him as a victim of unfair persecution by the political establishment. Even the rape charge was seen as part of a grand conspiracy against him. His youthful supporters vowed to "kill for Zuma."

Casting doubt on the character of the complainant, Mr. Zuma and his lawyers were able to beat the rape charge. After his acquittal, he turned his attention to Mr. Mbeki, portraying him as an aloof intellectual who had lost touch with the country. By the end of 2007, he had defeated Mr. Mbeki for the ANC leadership. By 2009, he managed to get the corruption charges dropped, and he was elected as South Africa's president.

His first term as president included some achievements. He authorized, for example, a huge expansion in the supply of life-saving anti-retroviral medicine for the millions of South Africans with HIV. But again, there was a covert side to his life. While he ran the country and travelled to international summits, his family was increasingly becoming entangled with a new financial sponsor: the Gupta family.

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki, left, shares a laugh with his then-deputy president in Cape Town, South Africa, in June, 1999.

The Guptas were three brothers from India who were rapidly building a business empire in South Africa, with help from their political connections. South African media later uncovered the fact that Mr. Zuma's son, Duduzane, had begun gaining shares and directorships in Gupta companies in 2008. Over the following two years, he was appointed a director of a dozen Gupta-owned companies, and the connections between the two families deepened.

The Guptas prospered and expanded, and Mr. Zuma won a second term in office in 2014. But in the end, his secrets were exposed.

Investigations uncovered his relationship with the Guptas, including their influence on his cabinet appointments. There was also a scandal over his use of state funds to pay for upgrades at his village home. The courts ruled that he had violated the Constitution. And after a lengthy court battle, the weapons-deal corruption charges from 2005 were revived against him, leaving him more isolated than ever.

By 2016, Mr. Zuma was leading the ANC to disaster. The party suffered an embarrassing defeat in three of South Africa's biggest cities in the 2016 local elections. Eighteen months later, when his term as ANC leader ended, he was unable to orchestrate a victory for his chosen successor.

On Wednesday, after the ANC ordered him to resign as president, Mr. Zuma tried the same tactic that had worked in 2005. "I'm being victimized here," he said.

This time, nobody bought it. On Wednesday night, less than 24 hours before Parliament was set to pass a no-confidence motion to force him out, he announced his resignation.