|Zuma remains hugely popular despite having faced corruption allegations [AFP]
Zuma, born in the KwaZulu-Natal province, joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1959 and became an active member of its armed wing in 1962.
He was arrested in 1963, convicted of conspiring to overthrow the government and sentenced to 10 years in prison on Robben Island.
He comes from an under-privileged background and received formal education at primary level only. As such, he is hugely popular among poor black South Africans who see him as one of their own.
The ever-smiling Zuma, 67, has the tendency to break into dance often accompanied by supporters singing his signature tune Umshini Wami - Zulu for Bring Me My Machine-Gun.
"In Zuma we see ourselves, we see humility, down to earth. We see somebody we can speak to, who has a genuine love for people," Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), has said.
He is a polygamist who has married five times. One of his wives committed suicide and he divorced another, a cabinet minister in the South African government.
Thabo Mbeki, the former president, chose Zuma - an ethnic Zulu - as deputy president in 1999, partly in recognition of the role he had played in ending violence between ANC members and members of the Inkatha Freedom Party, the main Zulu party in the KwaZulu-Natal province.
In June 2005, Mbeki fired Zuma after his financial adviser was convicted of fraud and bribery in a multibillion dollar arms deal. However, Zuma remained deputy president of the party under Mbeki.
The charges against Zuma, which alleged he was aware of his adviser's involvement in a $70,000 bribe to derail an investigations into the arms deal were subsequently dismissed.
In 2006, Zuma faced another set of charges related to the alleged rape of a family friend - something Zuma has always strongly denied. When the court heard the accuser's testimony the rape charges were dismissed.
|Many South Africans see Zuma as a hero [AFP]
Aids activists were, however, furious that Zuma testified during the trial that he had had unprotected sex with the HIV-positive woman and believed taking a shower afterwards would protect him.
At the time he was head of the National Aids Council.
Few thought Zuma had a political career left but he remained hugely popular and, in December 2007, managed to defeat Mbeki in a bitter contest for the ANC leadership.
However, the victory celebrations were short-lived as soon afterwards the National Prosecuting Authority said it had new evidence against Zuma and filed racketeering, corruption, money laundering and fraud charges.
Prosecutors accused Zuma of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from the French company Thint, formerly Thomson CSF, to use his influence to stop investigations into government arms contracts.
But a South African court, saying the process to prosecute Zuma had been interfered with, threw out corruption charges against Zuma on September 12, 2008, clearing the way for him to run for election as the country's president in the 2009 elections.
'Prepared to kill for Zuma'
In the lead-up to the court's ruling, the country's largest trade union federation (Cosatu), the South African Communist Party, and the left-wing ANC Youth League rallied behind Zuma, maintaining that he was the victim of a plot to stop him from becoming president.
Julius Malema, the head of the youth league, said in June 2008 that he was "prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma".
In April, South African prosecutors formally dropped corruption charges against Zuma with Mokotedi Mpshe, the acting director of public prosecutions, saying senior prosecutors abused their powers when they decided to bring the charges at the same time Zuma was standing for the ANC leadership.
"An intolerable abuse of process has occurred which requires discontinuation of the prosecution," Mpshe said at the time.
Reacting to the decision, Zuma said: "There never was a case against me ... I have been vindicated. There is no cloud. There has never been a cloud... At the moment we have a country to run."
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies