For such a weighty gathering, it was a decidedly undignified start. Delegates tried to drown out rival factions with songs and jeers so loud that conference organizers had to warn them to quiet down. But even when the noise stopped, it was the chant Awuleth umshini wami (Bring me my machine gun) that prevailed. The song—a throwback to the anti-apartheid struggle that has since taken on a raunchier meaning—is the trademark of Jacob Zuma, the man now firmly on track to become South Africa's third black president.
Zuma, 65, was elected Tuesday as head of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) after a divisive battle against the incumbent, President Thabo Mbeki. Zuma won some 60 percent of the votes from the 4,000 party members meeting in Polokwane after the ballot was delayed for two days by procedural disputes. Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as South Africa's leader, was hoping to retain the ANC's influential top position, even though term limits prevent him from staying on as president after April 2009. Instead, Zuma staged a remarkable political comeback, winning a significant victory in spite of facing an ongoing probe into alleged corruption and lingering controversy after his acquittal on a rape charge. So acrimonious was the battle that Mandela declined to endorse either candidate and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu—long one of his nation's most influential voices of conscience—urged the ANC to look beyond the two main candidates and not to "choose someone of whom most of us would be ashamed." Mondli Makhanya, the editor of South Africa's biggest newspaper, the Sunday Times, was even more scathing, describing Zuma as "ethically retarded and prone to bad judgment."
Zuma, for his part, claims that the corruption probe and the rape charges were part of a conspiracy orchestrated by his rival Mbeki, who fired him as deputy president in 2005. Certainly Zuma could not be more different from Mbeki, an aloof intellectual who has achieved economic successes, including sustained growth of 5 percent a year, but lost touch with his constituency and failed to tackle two of South Africa's major problems—crime and HIV/AIDS—which together claim hundreds of thousands of lives a year. Mbeki had hoped to continue serving as head of the ANC, which would have allowed him to wield enough behind-the-scenes influence to handpick his successor. (Ironically, he favors foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, one of Jacob Zuma's ex-wives.) However, many analysts believe that this week's leadership vote was as much against Mbeki as it was for Zuma. Mbeki's popularity has been in dramatic decline in recent months. In one telling incident, celebrating fans at a recent event for the 2010 soccer World Cup left the stadium in droves when a Mbeki speech was broadcast and returned when it was done.
The question now is where Zuma goes from here. In a country where citizens vote directly for a parliament rather than a president, the leader of the ruling party traditionally becomes the head of the country, too. But Zuma is not necessarily a shoo-in for 2009. His biggest problem: the legal probe arising from his relationship with Schabir Shaik, a former financial adviser who was convicted of fraud and corruption more than two years ago. Shaik allegedly brokered a payout for Zuma from a German company that was awarded a contract in a multibillion-dollar South African arms deal back in the 1990s. A long, complex investigation and legal battle led last Friday to the National Prosecuting Authority lodging an affidavit in the Constitutional Court revealing that Zuma could face charges of racketeering, tax evasion, fraud and corruption involving more than 4 million South African rand (about $580,000). If he were found guilty, his presidential aspirations would be over. "It's a big stretch to assume that Jacob Zuma will be South Africa's next leader," says political analyst Steven Friedman. "The legal hurdle he faces is a massive one. A lot could happen between now and the election."
Whatever happens, the next 18 months should reveal a lot about what kind of president Zuma might make. Raised as a poor, unschooled rural herd boy in the peasant-farming heart of Zululand, he is now seen as a cordial, charismatic man with a knack for negotiations. After serving as a guerrilla leader during the fight against apartheid, his singular achievement was helping to end the political violence that wracked his home province, KwaZulu-Natal, during the 1990s. "He is a conciliatory politician who likes inclusive decision-making and brings in groups who would normally be excluded," says Friedman. "That could be good for the country." On the downside, though, says Friedman, is Zuma's tendency to display poor judgment and a social conservatism that is reflected in his attitude toward women and gays.
Economically, Zuma is not likely to deviate much from Mbeki's course. "Mbeki is a social democrat whose economic choices were limited by prevailing conditions," says Adam Habib, a political commentator and deputy vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. "[Zuma] might have better rapport with the population, but he won't fundamentally change macroeconomic policy." Habib adds that while Zuma's victory will deepen the bitter divisions in the ANC, it will also ease fractious relations with its political partners, the pro-Zuma Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party.
Not all South Africans are preoccupied by such weighty debates, though. For the less serious-minded, the big issue now is which of Zuma's wives will become the next First Lady. Zuma, a Zulu traditionalist and unabashed polygamist, has been married five times and still has three spouses. (Foreign minister Dlamini-Zuma divorced him; another wife, former Mozambican flight attendant Kate Mantsho Zuma, committed suicide in 2000, reportedly citing marital misery as her reason.) Zuma is still married to his wife of five years, Mantuli Zuma, and recently paid lobolo (bride price) for a new young Durban wife, Thobeka Stacy Mabhija, with whom he has two children. But most likely to clinch First Lady status is Zuma's loyal first wife, Sizakele Khumalo, who has been with him since 1959 and who Zuma once described as "a wife, a friend, a sister and a mother to me." Zuma has brushed aside criticism of polygamy, arguing on television that unlike many politicians who hide mistresses and their children, "I love my wives and I'm proud of my children." But as Tutu points out, South Africa could probably do better.