South Africa Leadership Fight Heats Up

Article excerpt

Technically, South Africans will choose their new president two years from now. But since the ruling African National Congress controls nearly 70 percent of the vote, the real choices voters face in 2009 already will have been made, by the ANC, at a party conference that takes place this December in the northern city of Polokwane.

The ANC conference will have all the makings of a reality TV show like "Survivor," minus the ubiquitous cameras. At Polokwane, a new generation of ANC leaders - millionaire businessmen, strong-willed women, feisty trade unionists, ethnic nationalists, and at least one accused bribe-taker - will be lining up for their chance to take over the party from ANC president Thabo Mbeki, and in 2009, rule the nation.

The ANC's 52nd National Conference will be held behind closed doors, but the succession battle burst onto the public stage this week after votes by provincial party delegates indicated that Mr. Mbeki's bitter rival, Jacob Zuma, has built a solid lead.

Still, analysts say that a delegate's vote conducted in the open at the provincial level may change dramatically in the secret ballot process expected in Polokwane, and any candidate could emerge victorious. In such a crucial handover of power, from the first generation of post-apartheid leaders to the second, there is an unprecedented lack of clarity.

"This is a struggle over which direction the ANC wants to go in," says Sheila Meintjes, head of the political science department of Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. "Usually we know what is going to happen and who is going to lead. Now it's very interesting. Who will lead the country after 2009? The race is very open."

Jacob Zuma's surge

The two frontrunners in the race to become ANC president are very familiar faces here: Mbeki, who is forbidden from a third term as president of the country, but can remain president of the ANC; and former ANC deputy president Mr. Zuma, who was fired in 2005 in the wake of a scandal over an arms deal in which Zuma was accused of taking a bribe.

Charges against Zuma were dropped last year, after a court threw out evidence obtained during a search of Zuma's house and those of his lawyers, but last week the Supreme Court allowed prosecutors to readmit evidence in the case.

Zuma's supporters have cried foul. Zuma himself has threatened to take down much of the ANC leadership with him, calling them as witnesses.

Far from a diminished figure, however, Zuma seems to have strengthened his position.

According to recent votes by delegates at the provincial party level, 2,270 delegates voted for Zuma to be ANC president, and 1,396 delegates voted for Mbeki. Even the ANC Women's League backed Zuma, instead of either Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (Zuma's ex-wife) or Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, both of whom were thought to be Mbeki's choice as candidates for the national presidential race in 2009.

Many disaffected ANC members and other allies are rallying around Zuma, a man they see as the voice of the 40 percent of South Africans who are jobless, the residents of shantytowns, the trade unionists, and the tens of millions who remain in poverty despite 14 years of freedom. …

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