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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 December 2007, 01:02 GMT
South Africa faces turbulent 2008
Peter Biles
BBC southern Africa correspondent

When the African National Congress (ANC) marks its 96th anniversary on 8 January, it will also be the start of another testing year for South Africa's ruling party.

ANC leader Jacob Zuma, 20 December 2007
The newly elected ANC leader has been recharged with corruption
The ANC's recent national conference in Polokwane that elected Jacob Zuma as the new leader, was a watershed for Africa's oldest liberation movement.

In voting for Mr Zuma and his allies, the ANC's rank and file sent a powerful message that it wanted a change of leadership style - with leaders who are more in touch with the grassroots.

"This was an attempt to reclaim the party for the poor and the working class," said political analyst Judith February as allies of President Thabo Mbeki were voted off the ANC's National Executive Committee.

The extent of the rebellion against Mr Mbeki and his subsequent humiliation caught many people by surprise.

Two centres of power

Paradoxically, this was the rejection of a president who had led South Africa through a decade of solid economic growth.

But Professor Adam Habib from the University of Johannesburg says one of Mr Mbeki's greatest weaknesses was that he failed to identify with the fears and hopes of the people he governs.

"Whether it was on crime or the crisis in the public health system, Mbeki never had the humility to acknowledge there was a problem," wrote Prof Habib, in the Sunday Independent newspaper.

President Mbeki has brushed aside suggestions that he is too "aloof". He insists that he travels all over the country, listening to people at "imbizos" (public meetings).

Jacob Zuma is now leader of the ANC and this strengthens the pro-change position of South Africa
Eddie Cross
Zimbabwean opposition politician

However, there is no question that Jacob Zuma is more the man of the people.

So, expect many more renditions of "uMchini Wami" ("Bring Me My Machine Gun") - the liberation struggle song that Mr Zuma has made his own, and sings with gusto at every opportunity.

South Africa will enter 2008 with two centres of power.

Thabo Mbeki remains president of the country until his term of office expires at the next general election in 2009, while Jacob Zuma has taken over the running of the all-powerful African National Congress.

This unprecedented and potentially awkward situation makes Mr Mbeki something of a lame duck president, but he has said there is no reason for his government not to serve its full term. Mr Zuma has supported this.

President Thabo Mbeki, 17 December 2007
President Mbeki has overseen a decade of economic growth

Blade Nzimande, the general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP), hopes a stronger ANC will emerge in the coming year.

The SACP and the trade union federation, Cosatu, have been among Mr Zuma's key supporters, and have also been strident critics of President Mbeki's economic policy.

"We need to lay the foundation for rebuilding a stronger (tripartite) alliance that is capable of moving together on the key challenges that face our country," says Mr Nzimande.

Distraction

But Jacob Zuma was only given a week to savour his victory before the National Prosecuting Authority recharged him with corruption, in connection with a controversial arms deal dating back to 1999.

An ANC leader who will to be involved in court appearances over a prolonged period will be a serious distraction for the party.

Mr Zuma has said only that he will cross that bridge when he comes to it.

Supporters of Jacob Zuma, 9 December 2007
Zuma has strong support from the ANC rank and file

Should Jacob Zuma eventually be convicted, it would lead the ANC's new deputy leader, Kgalema Motlanthe, to take over at the helm of the party, and make him the frontrunner to succeed Thabo Mbeki as South African president in 2009.

Nowhere is the transition within the ANC being watched more closely than in neighbouring Zimbabwe where another year of economic chaos looms.

John Nkomo, the national chairman of the ruling party - Zanu-PF - was among the international delegates invited to the ANC conference in Polokwane.

In a New Year message, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai called on the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) to "invest more political capital" into Zimbabwe's transition.

President Thabo Mbeki has been mediating on behalf of Sadc since last March.

MDC policy co-ordinator, Eddie Cross, says: "Jacob Zuma is now leader of the ANC and this strengthens the pro-change position of South Africa."

The ANC's traditional 8 January statement will outline the priorities for 2008. Jacob Zuma will have plenty to think about as he assembles his leadership team, and tries to satisfy the huge expectations of his party and the country.

SEE ALSO
Zuma enjoys his crowning moment
20 Dec 07 |  Africa

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