Final Punches in South Africa Brawl

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Surporters of ANC deputy President Jacob Zuma and ANC president Thabo Mbeki show their support in Polokwane on Dec. 15.

The race for the leadership of South Africa reached a fever pitch on Saturday, the eve of a decisive ruling party conference, as state investigators filed revised allegations of corruption against the leading contender.

News broke on Saturday that the Directorate of Special Operations filed papers Friday in the Constitutional Court opposing Jacob Zuma's attempts to set aside an earlier judgment disallowing its evidence against him. Those papers included an affidavit which read: "The extent and gravity of the charges has grown... The payments based on the old and the new evidence are therefore more than three times greater than those based on the old evidence alone." The charges concern allegations that Zuma was involved in the payments of bribes by French arms company Thint during a 2000 deal; in 2005, one of Zuma's former aides was convicted of soliciting a bribe from the same firm. Zuma has long claimed the charges are the result of a conspiracy against him, and has said he would only step down from his position with the African National Congress (A.N.C.) if convicted.

The new developments came as the the party which shaped South Africa's struggle against apartheid under Nelson Mandela gathered in the northern town of Polokwane to elect its leader at its annual conference. A secret ballot will be held Sunday, and the result is expected to be announced either late Sunday or Monday.

A preliminary round of nominations from A.N.C. branch parties gave Zuma, the party's deputy president, a crushing lead over the incumbent, Thabo Mbeki, who is currently President of both the party and the country. An Ipsos Markinor Socio-Political Trends survey of 3,500 people taken in November and released on Saturday also showed 41% of South Africans think Zuma should succeed Mbeki as leader of their nation in 2009, when the constitution requires him to step down.

Since the A.N.C. dominates the political scene in South Africa, Zuma can expect to become his nation's president if he wins the party post this year. If he manages to hold onto his position at the top of the pary, Mbeki would have a chance to install a hand-picked successor.

The last few months have seen an increasingly rancorous split in the A.N.C., between supporters of Zuma and those loyal to Mbeki. The President sacked Zuma as his deputy in office in 2005 when Zuma's advisor was convicted of corruption.

Though Mbeki presides over an economy growing at around 5% a year, the benefits of that new prosperity have not trickled down to the townships. Unemployment nationwide is 26%, and a November study by South Africa's Institute for Race Relations found the numbers of people living on less than $1 a day rose from 1.89 million in 1996 to 4.2 million in 2005. While Mbeki's support comes from the country's business community, Zuma, who never went to school, is a populist with a natural appeal to poor South Africans.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of South Africa's most powerful moral voices, weighed in on Friday in an interview with the Mail & Guardian newspaper, in which he expressed distaste for the bitter personal rivalry between Mbeki and Zuma. "Why are we only concentrating on those two only?" he asked. "I have a deep sense of unease. The nation is in distress and needs a political leader who cares for them and makes them feel as though they matter."

Zuma responded by saying it was "the business of the leaders of the Church... [to] pray for people, not condemn them".

Victory for Zuma would cap a remarkable comeback for a man who was last year acquitted of raping a family friend half his age. In a last ditch pre-conference appeal for support, Mbeki said: "The eyes of our people and others in the rest of Africa and the rest of the world will focus on our conference. [Delegates] should fully understand the great responsibility they carry on their shoulders. Each and every decision they take...will be felt long after the...conference."