Zuma thrives on Mbeki blunders

It would have seemed all but unthinkable two years ago, but Jacob Zuma appears set to become leader of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Despite being dogged by graft allegations, analysts say he has patiently capitalised on the political blunders of his rival, President Thabo Mbeki, to win overwhelming support from the ANC’s provincial branches less than a month before the party chooses its next leader.

If he wins the ANC presidency, Zuma is almost assured of becoming South Africa’s president in 2009 elections.

Few would have predicted the dramatic comeback in 2005 when Zuma was sacked as deputy president by Mbeki over corruption allegations and after he was in court in May 2006 charged with rape. The corruption case was dismissed on a technicality and he was acquitted of rape.

But analysts say the prosecution of the 65-year-old populist politician has only enhanced his image among Mbeki critics, who say the president has developed an autocratic leadership style, undermining hard-won democratic gains after years of apartheid.

They cite his refusal to sack associates who are among the country’s most controversial figures.

”Certainly the anti-Mbeki camp has really grasped on to that as evidence that Mbeki is not the statesman that deserves continuing his position as ANC president,” political analyst Susan Booysen said.

While Zuma has used every opportunity to take advantage of Mbeki’s perceived weaknesses, he has also increased his popularity by courting a broad base of disaffected ANC members who see Mbeki as out of touch with ordinary South Africans, and also receives support from powerful trade union allies, who accuse Mbeki of enriching the business elite and ignoring the poor.

”I think he’s a lot further ahead than anyone predicted outside of his own campaign management,” political analyst Nic Borain said.

Break momentum

Mbeki cannot serve another term as South Africa’s president, but analysts say he is fighting to stay on as party leader in a bid to remain a political force and choose his successor.

Mbeki, who has been described as a shrewd and ruthless strategist in the ANC, may be scrambling to break Zuma’s momentum in the hope that senior party delegates will back him in a secret ballot at the last minute, analysts say.

”I don’t think Mbeki is the kind of guy to back down from a fight,” Borain said.

It may be too late.

In a major blow to Mbeki, the ANC Women’s League announced on Monday they would back Zuma, even though they criticised him after his rape trial last year, when he justified having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman by saying he had showered afterwards.

Zuma’s candidacy could also be derailed if he is recharged for bribery and fraud in an arms corruption case. A high court ruling earlier this month opened the way for prosecutors to use key evidence in any new case against him.

The prospect of Zuma returning to court has stirred passions among his supporters in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

”If that were to happen it would certainly plunge our country into serious chaos, into serious crisis. We will protest in the streets,” Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said.

Meanwhile, Mbeki said on Tuesday he was still in the race to lead the ANC after Zuma made sharp gains in the contest.

”If there are members of the ANC who nominate me for whatever position … I have got to respect that,” he told South African Broadcasting Corporation.

Mbeki’s comments came after ANC branches in South Africa’s nine provinces nominated their choice to head the ruling party.

South African media reported Zuma won five of the nine provinces, while Mbeki won four. — Reuters

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