Mbeki Toppled as Leader of Ruling Party in S. Africa

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

POLOKWANE, South Africa, Dec. 18 -- Former deputy president Jacob Zuma took control of South Africa's ruling party Tuesday in a resounding electoral victory, cementing his position as the favorite to become the country's next leader. His win pushed his opponent, President Thabo Mbeki, toward the twilight of his long political career.

Zuma's ascent to the presidency of the African National Congress in voting here came less than three years after Mbeki fired him over allegations of corruption, prompting most analysts to conclude that his political career was all but dead. Prosecutors, meanwhile, are still threatening to file new criminal charges against him early in the new year, possibly derailing his bid to become president of the nation.

But Zuma, 65, a former guerrilla leader reputed to have several wives and as many as 20 children, has fought back on the power of mounting popular frustration with the aloof and cerebral Mbeki, along with the support of the party's disenchanted trade unionists, communists and Youth League. All accused Mbeki of failing to consult with them on major decisions, including the firing of Zuma in 2005.

"This is our ANC!" declared Youth League President Fikile Mbalula, grabbing an open microphone as delegates to the party's national conference filtered out Tuesday night and a new leadership team consisting entirely of Zuma allies lingered on a stage at the front of the hall.

Mbeki remains president of the country, but Tuesday's vote signaled the end of his long rule as the unquestioned political leader of South Africa -- an era that began in 1999 when he took over the national presidency from Nelson Mandela. Mbeki's term was marked by steady economic growth, assertive diplomacy and the expansion of a black middle class, as well as international denunciation of South Africa's handling of AIDS issues and the ever-worsening crisis in neighboring Zimbabwe.

Yet it was Mbeki's inability to significantly alleviate persistent joblessness, along with his frequently imperious personality, that party members most frequently cited in criticizing him. Many also said Mbeki has simply wielded too much power for too long for the good of the party.

Zuma received 61 percent of the vote to 39 percent for Mbeki on Tuesday. Delegates at the ANC conference greeted the news with unrestrained exultation, rising to their feet -- and even climbing atop chairs and tables -- to cheer and sing, blow whistles and pound drums. Fireworks exploded in the night sky outside the conference hall.

"Our president, Jacob Zuma, has won!" shouted Lina Maepa, 39, as she stood on her chair, pounding a drum with each syllable.

The vote did nothing to dispel the lingering allegations of corruption against Zuma. Convictions on charges related to alleged graft or tax evasion would make him ineligible for government office -- a possibility that ANC leaders acknowledged.

"If they elect him, we'll have to live with that. If he's charged, they'll have to live with that, and cross that bridge when we come to it," said ANC Secretary General Kgalema Motlanthe, speaking at a news conference shortly before results were announced. "It's a strange case because it goes on and on and on. . . . So it's like a never-ending agony."

The evening pulsed with political symbolism. At one point after the results were announced, Zuma and Mbeki -- long bitter rivals -- appeared together on a stage to applause. They embraced twice, clasped hands and appeared to share a private joke.

Then Mbeki departed the stage, leaving Zuma briefly alone in the front of a room bursting with the enthusiasm of his supporters. He put his hands together palm-to-palm, smiled and leaned his head forward in a bow. As the meeting ended more than an hour later, he refused to make any public comment, retreating behind a cordon of aggressive bodyguards as he said, "Tomorrow, tomorrow."

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