Zuma Victory Raises New Questions for South Africa Jacob Zuma, the new head of South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress, wore a broad smile recently as he accepted congratulations from his main rival for the job, South African President Thabo Mbeki. But it's unclear whether the civility will continue.
NPR logo Zuma Victory Raises New Questions for South Africa

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/AP/Getty Images hide caption

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Alice Kreit, NPR
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Alice Kreit, NPR

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 hide caption

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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.

ANC Suffers a Break in Traditional Solidarity

South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki (left) lost control of the country's ruling political party to his one-time deputy, Jacob Zuma (right). Getty Images hide caption

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The election of Jacob Zuma as president of the African National Congress marks the end of one phase of a fierce power struggle.

During this time, veterans of the fight against apartheid vied for control of the party — and of the South African government. But after the vote, Zuma and his rival, South African President Thabo Mbeki, made a strong show of unity.

They sought to calm what has been an unsettling time for many South Africans, who are used to solidarity from the organization that led black resistance to the country's white-minority government throughout much of the 20th century.

The ANC was formed in 1912, just two years after Britain had granted independence to its former colony and placed its government in the hands of the small white population. The white South Africans were Afrikaners, the descendents of Dutch settlers, and British immigrants, many of whom had come to exploit the country's gold and diamond resources.

South Africa's white-owned farms and mines needed labor, and the government passed a series of laws and taxes designed to force black people off their own land and into the labor market. Most of the workers were migrants, men who lived most of the year in barracks at the mines and farms — and returned only briefly to their families in rural areas. The movements of black workers were strictly controlled by a pass system, which limited where they could go.

The ANC led protests against the pass laws in 1919 and supported a strike by black mineworkers in 1920, but its leadership generally favored a more persuasive, less militant approach. During much of the decade, the ANC was less active than the black trade unions and the Communist Party.

The ANC gained strength in the 1940s, as more black South Africans migrated to the cities to work in war-time factories and industries. Women, who were allowed only affiliate membership in the 1930s, gained full membership in 1943.

In 1944, young African nationalists in the party formed the ANC Youth League, which sought to organize militant resistance against race-based laws that were becoming increasingly restrictive toward blacks. The youth leaders included Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, who advocated strikes, boycotts and protests to counter the white government's policy of racial separation, known as apartheid.

In 1956, the government arrested more than 150 leaders of the ANC and allied organizations. They were tried for treason and finally acquitted five years later.

In 1960, the South African government expanded the pass laws, which required blacks to carry identity passes to show they had permission to enter white areas. An ANC splinter group organized an unarmed protest against the laws, which extended the pass requirements to women, many of whom worked as domestic servants in white neighborhoods. Police fired on the demonstrators, killing nearly 70 in what came to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre.

After the massacre, the South African government banned both ANC and the splinter group, known as the Pan Africanist Congress, from political activity. Members of the ANC's military wing, including Mandela, were arrested and sent to a political prison on Robben Island, off the South African coast. With funding from the former Soviet Union, exiled ANC members formed militant cells in neighboring countries, staging bombings and armed attacks across the border. The United States and other Western governments joined with the South African government in declaring the ANC to be a terrorist group.

International opposition to South Africa's white-minority rule grew over the next three decades, resulting in sanctions and boycotts that put economic pressure on the government. The collapse of the Soviet Union after 1989 cost the ANC much of its funding and forced it to adopt a more conciliatory tone. The two sides held peace talks, and the ban against the ANC was lifted in 1990.

The ANC formed a three-way alliance with the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, winning the 1994 general election and making Nelson Mandela the country's first black president. Since then, the ANC has been the majority party in South Africa, holding so much power that whoever leads the party is expected to win the presidency in 2009.