JOHANNESBURG, Dec 16, 2012 (AFP) - Jacob Zuma's battle to keep the top job in South Africa's ruling ANC is yet another test of the charismatic but scandal-prone former cattle herder's political survival skills, already sharpened through numerous imbroglios.
Pilloried for weak leadership and failing to mend widening divisions in the African National Congress, Zuma enters the party's conference Sunday a weaker leader than he was in 2007.
Even though he remains the favourite to keep the ANC presidency, support for the folksy leader -- who dramatically pipped former President Thabo Mbeki for the party's top job five years ago -- has been declining.
Some provinces, including ones that backed him in 2007, have withdrawn their support and thrown their weight behind his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe.
If Zuma fails to get re-elected at the party's 53rd conference, Zuma will be one of the few ANC leaders to serve only one term.
Born on April 12, 1942, in the rural outpost of Nkandla, in the north of the coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma's meteoric political rise was marked by controversy.
He enjoys loyalty from millions of ANC grassroots supporters awed by his rise from uneducated cattle herder to president, with a stint as a political prisoner on Robben Island along the way.
When he took the reigns of the ANC, Zuma inherited a party riddled with divisions that had festered under Mbeki, who was accused of being out of touch with the masses.
Zuma's amicable personality and negotiation skills, credited with ending entrenched political violence in his home province in the 1990s, made him an ideal person to restore harmony.
But divisions have deepened, particularly over policy matters, as poverty and unemployment levels continue to blight the country 18 years after the end of apartheid.
Under Zuma's leadership, the ANC has been accused of losing its moral fibre, and his lacklustre approach to fighting graft has taken a toll on his popularity.
"The major pitfall of Zumas style of leadership is that after people have expressed their happiness about his listening skills no action follows," said political analyst Prince Mashele.
"Thus, an impression of a listener, not a doer, is what people remain with for a long time."
With the economy in the doldrums, Zuma has spent most of his term trying to put out fires in various quarters that have lost faith in his leadership.
A wave of deadly labour protests in the country's key mining sector between August and September signalled the extent of discontent among the country's poor, piling pressure on Zuma to provide decisive action.
A former freedom fighter, Zuma has kept his political career alive through a string of scandals: from a trial on charges of raping a family friend, to an eight-year investigation into graft in an arms deal, to recent allegations of misusing $28 million in state funds to renovate his private residence.
Zuma's private life is as colourful as his political life.
An unashamed traditionalist, he often swaps his suits for full leopard-pelt Zulu warrior gear, engaging in energetic ground-stomping tribal dances during traditional ceremonies in his village.
At ANC rallies, he is also the first to break into song, leading supporters in the rousing anti-apartheid struggle song "Umshini Wami" (Bring Me My Machine Gun), which has become his signature song.
The teetotalling, non-smoking Zuma is a bundle of contradictions that emerge in his public statements, which often seem tailored to each audience.
With four wives and 21 children, Zuma is the only president in sub-Saharan Africa who is an open polygamist.
That image has drawn mockery in newspaper cartoons and art. The infamous painting "The Spear", which depicted him in a Vladimir Lenin pose with his genitals exposed, stirred a racially-charged storm when senior ANC officials campaigned to have it removed from a gallery and supporters vandalised it.
Prior to taking office, Zuma dismayed the nation during his 2006 rape trial, when he told the court he had showered after having sex with his young HIV-positive accuser to avoid contracting the virus.
He was head of the country's national AIDS council at the time.