President Zuma became involved in politics at an early age, joining the ANC in 1958. He became an active member of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, in 1962, following the banning of the ANC in 1960.
While leaving the country in 1963, he was arrested with a group of 52 recruits near Zeerust, and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment on Robben Island. After his release, President Zuma helped mobilise internal resistance and was instrumental in the re-establishment of ANC underground structures in the then Natal between 1974 and 1975.
He left South Africa in 1975 and for the next 12 years was based in Southern Africa, first in Swaziland and then Mozambique. During this period he was involved in underground work with former President Thabo Mbeki and others, giving leadership to ANC structures operating inside South Africa. He also dealt with the thousands of young exiles that poured out of South Africa in the wake of the Soweto uprising in June 1976. He became a member of the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) in 1977. By the end of the 1980s he was head of the ANC Intelligence Department.
Following the unbanning of the ANC in February 1990, he was one of the first ANC leaders to return to South Africa to begin the process of negotiations with the then apartheid regime. Like other leaders involved in talks he had to convince the ANC membership and support base of the need to negotiate with an apartheid regime that was intent on maintaining its power and influence.
President Zuma was instrumental in organising the Groote-Schuur Minute between the De Klerk government and the ANC that reached important decisions about the return of exiles and the release of political prisoners.
His strategic thinking and conflict resolution skills played a pivotal role in ending conflict in KwaZulu Natal and the then PWV region, where state-sponsored violence was tearing communities apart.
In 1991, at the first ANC conference held in South Africa since 1959, he was elected Deputy Secretary General and after the 1994 elections, he requested to be deployed to KwaZulu Natal to work to cement peace between the ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). He joined the provincial government as MEC of Economic Affairs and Tourism. He played an instrumental role in normalising relations within the multiparty government of the ANC and IFP.
As MEC, President Zuma worked hard to develop the tourism industry in the province and was highly regarded by the sector. He created a good working relationship between business and labour, and worked tirelessly to facilitate new investments into the KwaZulu Natal economy. In 1994, he was elected ANC National Chairperson. An exception was made in the ANC Constitution to allow him to serve as both provincial chairperson and National Chairperson.
He was elected ANC Deputy President in December 1997 and he served as Deputy President of the Republic of South Africa from 1999 until June 2005. During his tenure he distinguished himself in his role as mediator and facilitator of peace on the continent, especially in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
As Leader of Government Business, he worked to ensure good working relations between government and political parties in Parliament, and between Parliament and the Executive. He kick-started the process of promoting positive values through the launch of the Moral Regeneration Movement.
In 1998 he established the Jacob Zuma RDP Educational Trust Fund. The fund has educated more than 20,000 children at primary school level to university. Beneficiaries are primarily from impoverished backgrounds in rural areas.
President Zuma was elected ANC President in December 2007, becoming the ANC's candidate for South African president in the 2009 elections.