Bitter Contest Threatens S. Africa's Ruling Party

The African National Congress, South Africa's ruling party, meets this week to choose a new leader. But the leadership battle has been ugly, pitting current President Thabo Mbeki against his former deputy Jacob Zuma.

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Tomorrow, delegates to South Africa's ruling African National Congress gathered to choose a new leader who'll likely wind up running the country in two years. The battle has been fierce, pitting current President Thabo Mbeki against his former deputy Jacob Zuma, who survived corruption allegations and rape charges to now become the front-runner.

NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault will cover the conference and has been finding out what's on the minds of the people in the host town Polokwane.

(Soundbite of music)

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Here in Polokwane's black township of Mankweng, residents are rocking to the music from a computer at a carwash being built to help some of the 4,075 ANC delegates keep their cars, if not their campaigning, clean. They're also cleaning up eyesores and demolishing unsightly shacks along the main road to the conference. But despite the happy house party music, emotions are running high as the leadership battle in the party has been contentious, a battle over personalities more than issues. The leader will be decided by party delegates, not by popular vote.

Thabo Mbeki, who has led the party since Nelson Mandela stepped down in 1999, doesn't want the current party's deputy Jacob Zuma as president looking over his shoulder as he finishes out his second and final term as president of the country. Mbeki is popular with South Africa's business community but not labor, and has been accused of centralizing power and being distant. Zuma promises change, but won't say what kind.

Kensi Bakesi(ph) is digging into the dirt to remove grass from the floor of the tiny tent shack where she's setting up a hairdressing shop. Even with a diploma earned two years ago in marketing and information technology, Kensi hasn't been able to find a job and is so frustrated, she says she doesn't care who takes over the ANC leadership.

Ms. KENSI BAKESI: I don't care. And when it's Zuma, it be okay; Mbeki, it be okay - anyone.

HUNTER-GAULT: The upcoming conference has provided some of the unemployed with temporary work, but that hasn't helped the sprits of some, like 36-year-old Kaizas Mamorola(ph). He hasn't had a job in 10 years and blames the Mbeki government.

Mr. KAIZAS MAMOROLA: And it's been 10 years since I've got a job. I've been managing, selling the house. I haven't got a house. Not him.

HUNTER-GAULT: Mamorola says he wishes he were a delegate so he could vote for Jacob Zuma. But Mbeki says to divide the centers of power couldn't effectively addressed the nation's issues. But Zuma is heading into the conference with five-party branch nominations to Mbeki's four.

Both men are anti-apartheid heroes, and Zuma served as Mbeki's deputy until he fired him two years ago over ties to a corruption scandal. Zuma was subsequently tried on charges of rape and found not guilty. His image suffered though after he admitted to having unprotected sex with the HIV-positive woman. But he received the endorsement of the ANC Women's League and his grassroots popularity is strong.

Solomi Mahopa(ph), a veteran school teacher and a loyal ANC member, won't say who she hopes will win the leadership battle, just that she is sure ANC culture will lead the combatants to sort out their differences honorably. But she also hopes the winner and the organization will work on nationwide problems likeā€¦

Ms. SOLOMI MAHOPA (Member, African National Congress): Overcrowded classrooms, the lack of furniture in some cases, and then no laboratories. There are so many challenges that we have, to push through(ph), address as a nation or the union or the organization has to address.

HUNTER-GAULT: After a day of discussions, ANC delegates on Monday will choose the leader they want to address those challenges as the party president will almost certainly become the president of the country in 2009.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR News, Polokwane, South Africa.

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