S. Africa's Mbeki Center of Unprecedented Contest A real political thriller is unfolding in advance of a December conference where South Africa's ruling African National Congress is expected to choose its next party leader. Thabo Mbeki wants to remain in control of the ANC, even after his term as South Africa's president expires.
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S. Africa's Mbeki Center of Unprecedented Contest

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S. Africa's Mbeki Center of Unprecedented Contest

S. Africa's Mbeki Center of Unprecedented Contest

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JAMES HATTORI, host:

In South Africa, no political party is as popular or as powerful as the African National Congress. The party has roughly four million members and controls so many seats in parliament that it can change the nation's constitution at will.

ANC delegates are choosing their next party leader in December, and all of Africa is trying to guess who it will be. That's because whoever wins the party contest has an excellent chance of becoming the next president of South Africa.

From Johannesburg, NPR's Gwen Thompkins gives us the rules of the game.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Rule number one of getting elected president of the African National Congress is never look like you want the job. Naked ambition is just not done here. Just ask the author and journalist Alistair Sparks at home in Johannesburg. He has been covering politics here for the past 57 years.

Mr. ALISTAIR SPARKS (Author; Journalist): The African National Congress reminds me rather of the Roman Catholic Church, you know, when nobody, you never see a cardinal campaigned to be pope. They would rather pretend total disinterest in the job and then everybody disappears into the Sistine Chapel and all the rest of the Catholic world sits around, trying to watch and define the color of the smoke that comes out of the chimney. And this is rather what our ANC congress is going to be like.

THOMPKINS: Which way the smoke blows in December is anyone's guess. But in a break width party custom, the two-term incumbent has been agitating for yet another stint in the chair.

South African President Thabo Mbeki is deep into his second term as head of the party and the nation. Under the constitution, he has to give up the presidency of South Africa in 2009 but he can run for a third term as party president. And why not? Mbeki is the champ.

Mr. SPARKS: Mbeki has done a remarkable job in transforming the economy. I would argue that whereas Nelson Mandela brought about the miracle of racial reconciliation that that has been followed by an economic miracle wrote by Thabo Mbeki.

THOMPKINS: Under Mbeki, the country has enjoyed the longest run of economic growth in its history. The black middle-class has doubled. And for the first time in history, there's a democracy here that represents all of its people.

Aubrey Matshiqi is an ANC member and a political analyst in Johannesburg.

Mr. AUBREY MATSHIQI (Member, African National Congress; Analyst, Center for Policy Studies): All you only have to do to see how much South Africa has changed is just step out of your yard. And the change is there for you to see where you have a tarred road. For decades, there were no tarred roads. Where you have street lighting. For decades, there was no street lighting. The ANC government has been able to deliver about two million houses since 1994.

THOMPKINS: But sooner or later, nearly every champ meets his match and retires with at least one defeat.

Again, Aubrey Matshiqi.

Mr. MATSHIQI: He has been much more effective as a manager of government than as a manager of the ANC. And I think he has become one of the most isolated ANC leaders ever.

THOMPKINS: Mbeki has a leadership style that is often described as imperious, secretive, and at times, vindictive. Add to that a growing restlessness among South Africa's enormous underclass and it could well mean change in December.

Holela Monchu(ph) is a political columnist in Johannesburg.

Mr. HOLELA MONCHU (Columnist): I expect a revolt against Thabo Mbeki. I think the ANC cannot wait to kick him out.

THOMPKINS: Monchu says that barring any last minute surprises, he expects the next ANC leader to be Mbeki's former deputy. And that brings up rule number two of getting elected president of the ANC - never say never.

Enter Jacob Zuma, the warrior. Zuma was the deputy president of the nation until a corruption scandal over defense contracts derailed his career. Mbeki fired him in 2005 and there's reportedly been bad blood between the two men ever since. Zuma remains deputy president of the party.

Again, Aubrey Matshiqi.

Mr. MATSHIQI: And incidentally, Jacob Zuma - if you have a better politician than Mbeki. Mbeki maybe a better strategist, a better technocrat, but he is not as good a politician.

THOMPKINS: Zuma is awfully popular. It also helps that he is Zulu, the largest ethnic group in the country. But Zuma is charismatic in his own right or he would not prove such a strong contender, not when everybody in the party knows that the corruption investigation could land him in jail, and not after a sensational rape trial last year in which he was accused and ultimately acquitted of raping an HIV-positive social activist. Aubrey Matshiqi says Zuma is like honey to the party's rank-and-file and as long as ANC delegates aren't bothered by his legal problems, he's got a clear shot at the title of party president.

Mr. MATSHIQI: Because, remember, it's not members of the public that are going to elect the next ANC president. It is 3,600 delegates from ANC branches. Therefore, Jacob Zuma is still be elected into president.

THOMPKINS: But Alistair Sparks wonders whether party elders will allow a contest between Zuma and Mbeki if it looks like it might bet ugly.

Mr. SPARKS: I really do believe that we're going to end up with a compromise figure. I believe that if either Mbeki or Zuma emerges as the winner, it will split the organization. And the organization instinctively reaches for compromise when it faces that kind of threat.

THOMPKINS: And that brings us to rule number three in how to get elected president of the ANC: It ain't over until it's over. A stealth candidate could certainly emerge, but the more likely choices are: a man for all seasons and a closer.

Tokyo Sexwale is the man for all seasons. He's a crowd pleaser, a billionaire, and an ANC hero. Sexwale was a commander in the party's militant wing and served time on death row at Robben Island. In classic ANC style, Sexwale says he will compete for the presidency if asked.

Again, Holela Monchu.

Mr. MONCHU: Tokyo Sexwale would be my preference because I think that - there's a sense that he's much of a democrat than Zuma or Mbeki.

THOMPKINS: And then there is Cyril Ramaphosa. He is the closer. Ramaphosa founded the most powerful trade union in South Africa, but he is beloved here as the tough ANC negotiator behind the nation's new constitution. He is now a successful businessman.

Again, Alistair Sparks.

Mr. SPARKS: My first choice would be Cyril Ramaphosa. He's a lawyer, you know. He's a labor union leader, a political activist and at the same time, a successful businessman who understands the needs of business. And that's, I think, what the country needs.

THOMPKINS: Ramaphosa says he's not interested in the job, but that may change in December.

Mr. SPARKS: I mean, December 2007 is probably as crucial to this country as the arrival of democracy in 1994.

Again, Holela Monchu

Mr. MONCHU: It is the proverbial fork in the road. You know, what we decide to do in December will determine what will happen for the next 10 long years if you make a bad decision.

THOMPKINS: The ANC is nearly 100 years old but it has never seen a contest like this. Which brings us to the last of the rules of getting elected president of the ANC: There's no such thing as a sure thing. That's because he's already been president. Nelson Mandela would likely be the only unanimous decision candidate that the ruling ANC will ever have. In South Africa, he is the greatest of all time.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Johannesburg.

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