But his journey to the top has been loaded with obstacles, and his tenure as president, especially in the latter years, has been deeply mired in controversy.
State capture and corruption allegations, which also involved his son, Duduzane, and the Gupta family, who are believed to have close links with him, heightened in that time.
Zuma’s ties with the Guptas came largely to the fore in 2013, when it emerged that he had allegedly approved the Indian family’s landing of a private jet at the Waterkloof Air Force base, which carried hundreds of guests to a wedding they hosted at Sun City.
Zuma was born in Nkandla in April 1942, but “vanished” in his teenage years, as his younger brother, Khanya, succinctly put it, to fight against the apartheid government.
“We did not know where he was. He just left without telling anyone. We thought he was dead,” said Khanya. “Our village rejoiced when he returned in 1973.” Before his return, Zuma had spent 10 years on Robben Island for trying to skip the country. He held the position of head of intelligence in Lusaka, Zambia, the party’s then headquarters during apartheid.
Some, like his diehard supporter, Bathabile Dlamini, have publicly said Zuma’s credibility was being tarnished so no one would believe him should he lift the lid on the dirty files he has on comrades.
While the country waits to see if he will succumb to the increasing pressure for him to step down, his brother, Khanya, says he is a defiant person.
When the ANC and its alliance partner, the SACP, were unbanned in 1990 by apartheid president FW de Klerk, Zuma and his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, and incumbent ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa were part of the negotiating team with the apartheid government, with Nelson Mandela leading the talks.
From then, Zuma became a popular figure in political circles.
He played a key role in re-establishing peace in KwaZulu-Natal in peace talks between the IFP and the ANC. It helped to have a Zulu negotiator representing the ANC in the region instead of Mandela or Mbeki, who are both Xhosa.
After democracy was achieved in 1994, Zuma was deployed as the MEC for Economic Development and Tourism in KZN.
At the time, he also held the position of national chairperson of the party.
In the 1997 elective conference in Mahikeng, Zuma was elected as the party’s deputy president, with his long-time ally-cum-foe, Mbeki, being the president.
At Mahikeng delegates were already saying: “Zuma, you will be the next president.”
This was in accordance with the ANC’s unwritten tradition.
Zuma’s ardent followers used this tradition to push for him to become president.
But he turned his back on the tradition in the build-up to the party’s elective conference in December at Nasrec, Johannesburg.
Zuma was believed to be campaigning for Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to succeed him, a claim he dismissed days before the conference.
Ramaphosa won, and ever since, Zuma’s days have seemed to be numbered, with calls for his recall growing.
In an unprecedented move, Zuma announced fee-free education at tertiary institutions on the first day of the party’s elective conference. The call was described by many as self-serving.
In 2005, Zuma was sacked by Mbeki following allegations that he was involved in a corrupt relationship with his then financial adviser, Schabir Shaik. The allegations continue to hover over his head as opposition parties push for Zuma to have his day in court over the 783 corruption charges against him.
But there was another hurdle in his way at the time.
Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, publicly known as Khwezi, the daughter of Zuma’s close comrade in exile, Judson Kuzwayo, made rape allegations against him. Khwezi, who died in 2016, was the name given to her to protect her identity as a sexual assault victim. Many thought this was the final chapter in Zuma’s already chequered political career. But he was acquitted of rape in 2006.
The allegation angered his supporters, who saw it as a bid to block Zuma, who they referred to as “100% Zulu Boy”, from ascending to the top post.
The then ANC Youth League president, now EFF leader, Julius Malema, led the charge and ripped apart Zuma’s nemesis like a raging dog.
He once vowed to take up arms and kill for Zuma. But now he is arguably Zuma’s most vocal critic.
Malema and his red-clad troops in Parliament became a thorn in Zuma’s flesh and harped continuously on about the upgrades at the president’s Nkandla home, which amounted to R246 million.
This gave birth to the #PayBackTheMoney campaign.
Acting on former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s “Secure in Comfort” report, the Treasury asked Zuma to pay back R7.8million for unduly benefiting from the upgrades. He complied.
In 2007, Zuma challenged Mbeki at the watershed Polokwane elective conference and won. The next year, the NEC, led by Zuma, recalled Mbeki.
Kgalema Motlanthe took over as interim president while Zuma fought to clear his name.
Two years on, in 2009, the “100% Zulu Boy” stood in front of a packed crowd at the Union Buildings and said: “So help me God,” taking the oath of office in accordance with section 87 of the constitution. He was finally South Africa’s number one.
The constitution states that the president is required to swear faithfulness to the nation and obedience to the constitution.
Was he faithful and obedient to the constitution?
Cast your mind back to when Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng told the nation that the public protector’s remedial action against Zuma over the upgrades to his Nkandla home were binding.
Mogoeng further said Zuma had failed to uphold, defend and respect the constitution.
This prompted a series of motions of no-confidence against him which he overcame through the ANC’s majority in Parliament.
Zuma, while having pledged to uphold the constitution, has previously said the ANC comes before the country.
He has faced eight motions of no-confidence and survived all thus far.
How long he can cling to power remains to be seen.
There have also been attempts to impeach him.
The events of this week have caused more uncertainty around Zuma. National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete postponed the State of the Nation address and the ANC postponed its special national executive committee meeting (NEC) at which Zuma was expected to be fired.
This was after Zuma and Ramaphosa had supposedly had “fruitful” and “constructive” engagements.
The NEC is the only party structure that can recall Zuma, as it did with Mbeki.
He can also be removed via a motion of no-confidence or impeachment.
Recall is not mentioned anywhere in the constitution, which has been a hurdle for Ramaphosa. In a fortnight or so, on February 22, should he survive this week, or today for that matter, Zuma will face his ninth motion of no-confidence, sponsored by the red beret-clad EFF fighters.
That, of course, is if he hasn’t resigned, been recalled, voted out by an ANC-sponsored vote of no-confidence or been impeached.
Will a fighter like Zuma, as his brother describes him, fight back or give in?