South Africa's Mbeki Repudiated

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Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki (L) chats with newly elected ANC President Jacob Zuma.

The failure of South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki to be reelected leader of the African National Congress is a dramatic indicator of how far the ruling party's leadership has strayed from its liberation struggle roots. In a stunning repudiation of the Mbeki era, the man who succeeded Nelson Mandela at the helm of the organization won the support of only 39% of the 3,900 delegates to the party congress, compared with 60% for the populist former Deputy President Jacob Zuma. And this while Zuma, 65, still faces corruption charges in the South African courts. The result leaves President Mbeki a lame duck, and Zuma's supporters expect him to complete Mbeki's humiliation at the next general election in 2009 when they expect he will win the ANC's nomination to succeed Mbeki as President of South Africa. Although Mbeki is constitutionally prevented from seeking a third term, he sought to retain the party leadership in order to influence his succession — and to exclude his bitter rival, Zuma.

Zuma, to be sure, is hardly an ideal leader. Mbeki sacked him as Deputy President in 2005 after his financial adviser was convicted of corruption over an arms deal with a French company, and last week the Directorate of Special Operations filed papers in the Constitutional Court expanding similar charges against Zuma himself. And in 2006, he was in court again, acquitted on a rape charge, although his testimony nonetheless revealed questionable attitudes on sex, including an admission that he had unprotected sex with a woman he knew to be HIV positive.

Zuma's victory may be less a result of his own appeal as a candidate than it is is testament to the ire that President Thabo Mbeki arouses among the ANC rank and file. Discipline, once a hallmark of the organization in its days as an underground guerrilla movement, was in scant evidence at a conference whose delegates appeared to be in a state of open revolt, booing and whistling at Mbeki during his opening speech, drowning out Mbeki allies by singing songs in support of Zuma, and delaying the leadership vote for two days in arguments over procedure. Mbeki's stubborn and inept performance on the podium on the opening day only underscored his alienation from those he sought to lead. He spoke for two and a half hours, frequently repeating himself, and addressed his unpopularity only through oblique warnings about the dangers of division within the party. Regarding Zuma, Mbeki made several mentions of the dangers of corruption inside the party, and said that the corruption case against Zuma was a situation for which the party leadership had no previous experience, and "all of us hoped we would put this matter behind us sooner rather than later."

Political analyst Professor Adam Habib told South Africa's Business Day newspaper, "[Mbeki] should have spoken from the heart, and acknowledged some of the blame. He said someone else was to blame. With this, he cemented the divisions."

The President's aloof and distant style will soon fade into the ANC's past, but its failure under his leadership to redress the country's growing economic apartheid could dog the party for years to come. Mbeki has presided over eight years of economic boom in South Africa, and the country is predicted to grow by around 5% for the next five years. But the poor have hardly benefited. Official unemployment figures stand at 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. The fact that poverty has grown along with the economy on Mbeki's watch works in the favor of Zuma, whose popular appeal is rooted in his peasant background with no formal education. In popular perception, the aloof and bookish Mbeki's exclusion of Zuma from the government was an echo of the exclusion of South Africa's poor from the fruits of South Africa's boom. Business Day editorialized that "the growing social distance between the ANC leaders and the rank and file" mirrored the way "ANC public representatives have become estranged from the poor black communities they are supposed to represent." There was a "disconnect" between South Africa's ruling party and the country. "Before there can be a new dawn in the ANC, the old first has to die," it concluded.

Despite his victory over Mbeki in the race for the party leadership, it is not yet certain that Zuma will in fact become President of the country when Mbeki's term expires — despite the fact that the ANC's electoral majority remains unassailable. Although he has now attained pole position in the race to succeed Mbeki, Zuma would be barred from standing for President if he is convicted of corruption before the election. (If he becomes President before a case comes to court, he would be immune from prosecution until he left office.) A Zuma conviction would leave the ANC with two bitterly opposed factions, and in need of a compromise candidate. Looking forward to 2009, then, South African politics will increasingly be dominated by one question: will the country's most popular politician be elected President, or convicted of corruption?