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Zuma Victory Raises New Questions for South Africa

Jacob Zuma, president of the African National Congress, was accused of corruption involving defense contracts and private real-estate development. He was never prosecuted.
Gianluigi Guercia
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AP/Getty Images
Jacob Zuma, president of the African National Congress, was accused of corruption involving defense contracts and private real-estate development. He was never prosecuted.
South Africa Map
Alice Kreit, NPR /
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South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, will have served two terms by 2009. He's constitutionally barred from running again.
Gianluigi Guercia / AP/Getty Images
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AP/Getty Images
South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, will have served two terms by 2009. He's constitutionally barred from running again.

Jacob Zuma, the new head of South Africa's ruling party, wore a broad smile recently as he accepted congratulations from his main rival for the job, South African President Thabo Mbeki.

On the surface, the scene marked a gracious end to a fierce struggle for power in the African National Congress, but it's unclear whether the civility will continue.

The ANC is so powerful in South Africa that the party leader is almost guaranteed to win the country's presidency. Mbeki was the ANC's chief when he was first elected South Africa's president in 1999, and he remained at the head of the party during his re-election to another five-year term.

Mbeki is constitutionally barred from serving a third term, and if he had followed a pattern set by Nelson Mandela, he would have stepped down from the presidency of the ANC to clear the way for his successor. But Mbeki tried to hang on to the party leadership, choosing to fight for it in a contest with his former colleague, Zuma.

Mbeki's term as South African president is up in 2009. If he had won the recent party election, he would have had a strong influence over the party's choice to be his successor. It's unlikely that he would have picked Zuma. Their personal and ideological differences have grown too great.

The personal rift surfaced in 2005, when Zuma became embroiled in scandals involving real-estate deals and alleged bribes from a French weapons supplier. Although two of his close associates were convicted, prosecutors didn't go through with a case against Zuma. Mbeki fired him as deputy president despite pleas from Zuma supporters, who said the firing amounted to punishment for a man who had not had his day in court. That day could still come, now that prosecutors claim to have more evidence.

Zuma has also been accused of sexual misconduct. He was tried and acquitted of rape charges in 2006, after a court found that the sex had been consensual. The incident caused even more controversy because Zuma was head of South Africa's national AIDS Council at the time, and he acknowledged that he knew the woman involved was HIV-positive. Anti-HIV activists were outraged when he told the court that the only protective measure he took was to take a shower.

Zuma and Mbeki are the same age, 65, and they come from ideologically similar backgrounds, with family roots in the Communist Party and the struggle against apartheid. Both rose through the ANC ranks during decades in exile and, at times, they worked closely together. But their ideas have diverged in the years since the ANC became South Africa's ruling party.

Mbeki has pursued generally business-friendly policies as president, spurring economic growth but doing little to reach people at the bottom of the financial ladder. Zuma, a populist, won the ANC leadership role with strong support from labor unions and the South African Communist Party.

Those groups want him to speed up land-reform policies, nationalize key industries and provide more government support for the country's poor majority. Before his election, though, Zuma went to great lengths to assure domestic and foreign investors that he wouldn't tamper with most of Mbeki's free-market policies.

Since Mbeki has more than a year remaining in his term, South African political analysts have warned that Zuma's victory could set up two opposing centers of power, one in the South African government and one in the ANC. For now at least, they're promising that won't happen.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corey Flintoff