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Tarnished populist wins big in S. Africa

December 19, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

POLOKWANE, SOUTH AFRICA — Populist Jacob Zuma overcame allegations of corruption and rape to win the leadership of South Africa's governing party Tuesday, putting the candidate of the country's poor and angry townships on course to become the next president.

The vote represents a dramatic shift for South Africa, where Nelson Mandela and his successor, the elegant and intellectual President Thabo Mbeki, presided over an era of remarkable political and economic stability after the end of apartheid in 1994.

But many among the rank and file of the African National Congress didn't think Mbeki has done enough to improve the lives of the poor masses. And it was those rank and file among the ANC that voted in Zuma and his associates to the top positions in the party. It is far from clear, however, what kind of change Zuma, known as JZ (pronounced Jay Zed), will implement if he should go on to lead this nation of 44 million.

He has studiously avoided outlining what policies he stands for, although he's tried to reassure international investors that he won't veer sharply from Mbeki's economic policies. He draws his support from poor Africans in townships and shantytowns, with a quarter of South Africans naming him as preferred leader in a recent poll.

Mbeki's critics at home and abroad see his failure to tackle AIDS head-on and his flirtation with AIDS deniers as his Achilles' heel. But in the ANC, his main fault is seen as being remote and dictatorial and failing to listen to the concerns of the party and its allies, the unions and Communist Party.

But many South Africans will be troubled by the election of a man facing potential criminal charges -- he still faces investigations over corruption and tax evasion allegations -- and who has expressed highly controversial attitudes toward sex, AIDS and homosexuals: a sharp departure from the reconciliation of the Mandela era and the economic stability and growth under Mbeki. In a thinly veiled reference to Zuma, Anglican Archbishop and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu recently pleaded with the ANC not to vote in someone who would shame the country.

Some also fear that if Zuma avoids conviction and becomes the country's president, problems of corruption and patronage seen in neighboring African countries could follow. Mbeki warned in a speech to ANC delegates Sunday that for some in the contest, securing ANC leadership jobs was a means to get rich and take kickbacks in return for contracts.

The vote puts Mbeki's future in question, as he limps on as president, lacking a real ANC mandate. He is due to step down as the country's leader in 2009, but one newspaper, Business Day, headlined its conference coverage, "Can Mbeki survive in 2008?"

Mbeki has ruled as president for eight years, but ran the government as deputy president in the final years of Mandela's administration.

Looking exhausted and resigned, Mbeki embraced Zuma after the result was announced and left the conference hall as Zuma took the ANC presidential chair.

Zuma says he won't stand down as party president if charged, but if he is convicted, the newly elected deputy party president, Kgalema Motlanthe, would become Mbeki's heir apparent. Motlanthe, who was previously secretary-general, ran as No. 2 on the Zuma ticket.

Motlanthe's defeat of Mbeki's choice, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the foreign affairs minister, dashed the Mbeki camp's final hope of holding on to power and keeping a grip on South Africa's economic policies in the event of a Zuma conviction.

The vote saw a clean sweep for the Zuma camp, which took all top six positions in the governing national executive committee -- and left the president and Cabinet to face intense day-to-day pressure from a party that believes their time is up.

Zuma, sacked by Mbeki over corruption allegations in 2005, has made an extraordinary political comeback in a leadership bid that few took seriously 12 months ago.

A populist former guerrilla who learned to read in prison during apartheid, Zuma could not be more different from the cool, cerebral Mbeki, who likes to pepper his speeches with quotes from Shakespeare or Lenin, depending on his audience.

Zuma's trademark song, "Bring Me My Machine Gun," reverberated throughout the conference. He has played to populist sentiment, hinting that he supports introducing the death penalty, which would require a change to the constitution, and calling for AIDS to be taken more seriously.

Zuma shocked the nation with comments in his rape trial that the accuser wanted sex because she was wearing a knee-length skirt. He also said he took a shower to protect himself from the AIDS virus after unprotected sex with the HIV-positive woman who had accused him of rape.

More recently, Zuma, who was acquitted on the rape charge, questioned the right of murder and rape suspects to legal representation. He also is on record as making homophobic remarks, for which he was forced to apologize.

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