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In South Africa this weekend, members of the ruling African National Congress will meet to elect their next leader, someone who also stands a good chance of becoming the country's next president in 2009. Term limits prevent incumbent Thabo Mbeki from running again, but he's still trying to retain his post as ANC chief. And he's facing a tough challenge from his former deputy, Jacob Zuma, whom he fired two years ago. It's a rivalry between two successors to Nelson Mandela that now threatens to split South Africa's ruling party.
Here to tell us more are Ferial Haffajee, editor of the Mail & Guardian. She joins us on the phone from her office in Johannesburg; and Xolela Mangcu, columnist at Business Day. He joins us from Johannesburg as well.
Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. XOLELA MANGCU (Columnist, Business Day): Thank you.
MS. FERIAL HAFFAJEE (Editor, Mail & Guardian): Thank you very much.
MARTIN: Xolela, if you would start, describe the stakes in the fight for leadership of the ANC.
Mr. MANGCU: The person who wins the ANC presidency is most likely the person who's going to be the president of the country. So a great deal is at stake in terms of public policy, in terms of public administration, and where this country goes in the future.
MARTIN: But Ferial, if Thabo Mbeki cannot serve beyond 2009, why does he want to retain this ANC post and why is that important to him?
Ms. HAFFAJEE: We interviewed Thabo Mbeki in his office in Pretoria yesterday. And what I saw was a president who had gone a lot more gray-haired than I remember when he first came to office in '99. He looked worn down by the cares of office and worn down at what has become a very distractive fight in his ruling party. I do believe that he thinks that under a Jacob Zuma government, policies, education, health, et cetera, will be put on the backburner as patronage comes to the fore.
MARTIN: Now, I think some are tempted to view this as a personal fight between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, that there's kind of a personal rivalry there. Is that accurate? Is that fair?
Ms. HAFFAJEE: My own view is that it's not. I think until 2005 when President Mbeki fired his deputy at the time, they had a genial relationship. He did so, of course, because then deputy president Jacob Zuma was umbilically involved in the court case of a businessman called Schabir Shaik. It was alleged that Schabir Shaik had attempted to and corrupted Jacob Zuma. He then was forced to fire Mr. Zuma who did not step down from office. And then since then it's been a battle royale.
MARTIN: And Xolela, of course, Jacob Zuma has had other legal difficulties. I mean, he was accused of rape, was exonerated at trial. But I think a controversial figure, but he remains extremely popular. Can you help us understand that?
Mr. MANGCU: Well, the source of his popularity is actually a very strong anti-Mbeki feeling in this country. A feeling that Mbeki has abused members of his own party; has been exclusionary in the way he conducts his politics. So, you know, the Jacob Zuma phenomenon is more of an anti-Mbeki protest than anything else. And when it comes to the rape and the corruption, my standpoint on this is one, which is that we must always accept the decisions of our courts. And Jacob Zuma was acquitted in the rape trial. And when it comes to corruption, for example, he has not been found guilty of corruption. And again, the rule of law must prevail. Until that moment, we should presume him to be innocent.
MARTIN: Ferial, do you agree with Xolela that the Jacob Zuma phenomenon is more a reflection of disenchantment with Thabo Mbeki and his policies, his style of governance?
Ms. HAFFAJEE: I think that's only one part of the answer. There's a piece of research out today, which goes beyond the ruling party and into the population, which finds that, in fact, his trust and popularity liftoff in the country are quite big. Why is that? I think that we are a nation of underdogs, or at least a nation which will always support the underdog. And for me, I understand that by looking back at our history of struggle when Nelson Mandela was, of course, the arch-underdog who came to power.
So whenever you see a political leader, a big figure in trouble with the law, you'll find that this is odd South Africanism which will come out to bat for that person. I think Jacob Zuma is benefiting from that psyche in South Africa. I also think that he's a really nice guy. He's personable and warm. He's got the common touch. And people have been yearning for that.
I'm not quite as sanguine as my colleague Xolela on the issue of the rape trial. Of course, he was acquitted and we must respect that. But in the course of that rape trial, I think that he showed off certain personal and political habits which he would need to certainly apologize for again, and then promise the nation that they will not be repeated.
MARTIN: Give an example.
Ms. HAFFAJEE: Some of - he had unsafe sex with a woman who saw him as the father figure. He engaged in what was, for me, a very unequal and sexual relationship with a - I think it's shaming for us as a country which espouses fair gender politics, that that very woman is out of the country because she is too scared to come back to South Africa. She's living in virtual exile and poverty-stricken exile in London at the moment. Now, those I think are areas he will need to pay attention to.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin. You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're talking with journalists Xolela Mangcu and Ferial Haffajee about the upcoming African National Congress elections.
You mentioned Nelson Mandela, and, of course, I think he is the name that many people identify with the ANC as well as South Africa — the country's first democratically elected president. Has he weighed in? Has he shown his hand in any way?
Ms. HAFFAJEE: No, not at all. I think that many years ago, President Mbeki made it pretty clear to Madiba that he should not be involved in policy. And I think it is deeply sad that he has not been able to provide the leadership, which even at almost 90 years old, I'm convinced this talk could have provided some of the key lessons.
MARTIN: Xolela, if I could just clarify this one point, if Thabo Mbeki does not win — does not retain the presidency of the ANC, does it have a practical effect? Is it considered just more like a repudiation of him personally? Does it have any practical effect on his governance?
Mr. MANGCU: No, it has no bearing. I mean, you know, the thing is, you know, you asked a very good question early on is why is Mbeki wanting to hang on if, in fact, it's not to try and micromanage and influence things from behind the scenes, and were seen too much of that on the African continent. And I'm one of those people who - I mean, I've been writing and I'm doing for many years now that neither of those two men are good for South Africa. I've rejected both of them. But the reality is that one of them is likely to win. It's better to have a new person as a leader of the ANC or leader of the country than to go down what we've seen so many African countries before, the leader-for-life syndrome.
MARTIN: Speaking of that, there is another contestant on the scene, foreign minister - will you please help with the pronunciation? Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, is that about right?
Mr. MANGCU: Yes. And the difficulty with her is that she's seen by many people as merely a pawn in Thabo Mbeki's hands. Now, she's tried to deny that.
MARTIN: Why would she be a pawn? She's a minister in his government.
Mr. MANGCU: Well, the question that has been raised…
MARTIN: And she's also the ex-wife of Jacob Zuma.
Mr. MANGCU: Well, the question that has been raised is if President Mbeki made a call for a woman leader in South Africa, why then didn't he step aside and allow that woman leader to actually stand and be elected on her own right? That way her independence is affirmed.
MARTIN: Interesting. Would change in leadership of the ruling party have any effect on the country's relations with the United States? Is either of the candidates considered more - forgive me - pro-American than the other?
Mr. MANGCU: Not really. My feeling is that, you know, this country and its institutions and its laws are just too powerful. And they're so much in place already. There are relationships in place. Now, Jacob Zuma is not going to walk into the union buildings the following day and, you know, bring a rupture to those relationships. So the relationship with the United States is, in my view, unlikely to change.
MARTIN: Ferial, what do you think?
Ms. HAFFAJEE: I don't think they will. I think that President Thabo Mbeki and his foreign minister, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, have constructed a set of complex and sophisticated relationship. The relationship with the U.S. has been a good one, specifically on economic policy. I think that it's been troubled in the past few years because of our stance on multilateralism and also against the war in Iraq. I don't think that Jacob Zuma is - he might become a slightly more domestic-minded president, which is a good thing. But I don't think he's going to undo the networks which we have built across the globe.
MARTIN: And finally, I wanted to ask - this leadership fight is hard-fought but is it considered bitter at this point? Is anyone worried that of there is a close fight with, perhaps, a sore loser that this will have repercussions beyond the elections? Is that a concern?
Ms. HAFFAJEE: Personally, I think that it is a major concern. We interviewed the finance minister, Trevor Manuel, who warned that what we should not do, what the ANC should not do, is destroy a 96-year-old organization in a five-day conference.
Today, in our interview with President Thabo Mbeki, my colleague, Julio Esteban(ph) asked him whether in his 50 years in the ANC - because that's as long as he's been in the organization - he had ever seen fighting this deep. And he said that he had not and he'd been through some pretty rocky times with - in the organization.
MARTIN: Xolela, what do you think?
Mr. MANGCU: I tend to be less apprehensive, frankly. You know, I think that this will happen and it'll go. And I don't think that the fact that Thabo Mbeki might be out of the scene necessarily will bring peril to the ANC.
MARTIN: Anyone willing to place a friendly a wager on who will come up on top when the voting is concluded next week?
Ms. HAFFAJEE: Can we put U.S. dollars on it?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HAFFAJEE: My money is firmly on Jacob Zuma.
Mr. MANGCU: Yeah.
MARTIN: …what about you?
Mr. MANGCU: Yeah, me too. My money is on Jacob Zuma.
MARTIN: Well, we shall hold you to it. We should have set an amount. I think we'll put a latte to it or an expensive designer coffee to it.
Xolela Mangcu is a columnist at Business Day. He is also author of "To the Brink: The State of Democracy in South Africa." It will be published in January. We were also joined by Ferial Haffajee. She is editor of the Mail & Guardian. She joined us on the phone from her office in Johannesburg. Xolela is also in Johannesburg. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. MANGCU: Thank you.
Ms. HAFFAJEE: Thank you. Michel.
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