Political paralysis fears after Mbeki defeat
South Africans are pondering an uncertain future after Jacob Zuma's victory as leader of the African National Congress effectively created two centres of power, and fertile ground for acrimony with the humiliated President, Thabo Mbeki.
Mr Zuma, who months ago survived a rape trial and dismissal as deputy head of state over an arms corruption scandal, staged a dramatic political comeback by garnering 60 per cent of votes from about 4,000 delegates at the party's conference to assume the leadership of Africa's political and economic powerhouse, crushing Mr Mbeki. "Zunami Rules", the newspaper The Sowetan declared yesterday.
Mr Mbeki's term as head of state ends in 2009 but he will now have to be accountable to Mr Zuma for the implementation of fresh ANC policies that are being hammered out by delegates. Analysts fear a paralysis of government as the two men fight for dominance.
Although a similar situation occurred when Mr Mbeki took over from Nelson Mandela, there was no fall-out because relations between the two men were cordial. In fact, as Mr Mandela's deputy, Mr Mbeki was so powerful that he ran day-to-day functions of the government while Mr Mandela travelled the world.
Influential South Africans forecast a delicate 18 months until Mr Mbeki's term ends. "It is going to be a difficult period fraught with all sorts of complications," said Mr Blade Ndzimande, a key Zuma supporter who is also secretary general of the South African Communist Party, a ruling alliance partner with the ANC.
His sentiments were echoed by another powerful Zuma supporter, Zwelinzima Vavi, the secretary general of the nearly two million-strong Congress of South African Trade Unions, which is also part of the tripartite alliance.
"One man will have mass power [Mr Zuma] while another will have the power of state institutions [Mr Mbeki]," he said. "The potential for conflict is there and the next 18 months will have to be navigated very carefully."
Many analysts see conflict as being inevitable because of the bitter rivalry between Mr Mbeki and Mr Zuma underscored by their supporters at the conference, and Mr Mbeki's seemingly ceaseless determination to block Mr Zuma from becoming head of state.
Mr Zuma still faces the threat of corruption charges against him over kickbacks he allegedly solicited from a French company in the arms deal. But Mr Zuma's core supporters led by a militant students' group have since demanded the dropping of all pending charges against him in the wake of his election.
Some Zuma supporters have openly threatened to oust Mr Mbeki in a no confidence motion in parliament if he is re-charged. The national prosecuting authority has indicated that it would re-charge Mr Zuma in the new year.
There are widespread concerns among South Africans about the policy direction Mr Zuma will take. He has not spelt out his policies, save for vague statements that he would rule collectively and continue with some of Mr Mbeki's pro-growth economic policies. Mr Mbeki's camp maintain that Mr Zuma is beholden to his communist supporters and is going to shift economic policy to ultra left positions and cause economic collapse.
Although the markets were unperturbed by the Zuma take-over, with the Johannesburg Stock Exchange all-share index inching up by 0.1 per cent by mid-morning yesterday in line with European markets, many South Africans still believe the future remains uncertain. The opposition Democratic Alliance leader, Helen Zille, called Mr Zuma's election as a "dismal day" for South Africa, adding: "It is an indictment on the ruling party that they could find no better candidate than Jacob Zuma to lead them."
Mr Zuma's supporters have urged South Africans to forget some of the grotesque statements that lost him support in non-ANC circles during his rape trial. Mr Zuma told a judge before his acquittal that he took a shower as an Aids prevention measure after he had sex with a woman he knew to be HIV-positive. He also said he thought women wearing mini-skirts are issuing an open invitation for sex.
One newspaper letter writer said she hoped Mr Zuma's first act as president if he takes over from Mr Mbeki would not be to ban mini-skirts.