Close escapes have become a habit for Jacob Zuma, whose corruption trial was called off on Friday and who now looks set to become South Africa’s president in a dramatic political comeback.

Dismissed as deputy president in 2005 over accusations of corruption, the populist leader avoided trial on a technicality only to face renewed charges that have now been thrown out by a judge.

In the meantime, he was acquitted in a rape trial and managed to wrest the leadership of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) from President Thabo Mbeki, who has to step down next year after an election Zuma is almost guaranteed to win.

Zuma’s rise has worried some investors, who fear his left-leaning trade-union and communist allies will try to steer him away from policies behind economic growth.

But he has been working his charm over the past few months, exuding confidence despite the enormous pressures and huge costs of his legal battle, rebuilding an image that his court appearances have done nothing to improve.

On trial for rape, Zuma stunned many when he said he took a shower after unprotected sex with his HIV-positive accuser to protect himself.

Just last week, millions of South Africans woke up to a newspaper cartoon of Zuma unbuckling his belt and about to rape a woman symbolising justice, causing outrage in the ANC and unions.

Allegations that he took bribes in connection with a huge arms deal arranged by South Africa often overshadowed his status as an anti-apartheid hero who spent a decade in prison with Nelson Mandela.

According to the latest graft charges that have now been dropped, Zuma was accused of taking 783 bribes totalling more than R4-million over a 10-year period. He was also accused of soliciting a bribe from a French arms firm.