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2007: Crucial year for ANC

13 January 07 01:12 GMT

As South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) celebrates its 95th birthday, the BBC's Mohammed Allie looks ahead to what should be a crucial year in the history of the party and the country.

The ANC's National Conference, where a new party leader will be chosen, may only be taking place in December, but jockeying for the job has already been under way for most of the past year.

Given the party's large majority, it is a virtual certainty that the ANC president will become South Africa's next leader when incumbent Thabo Mbeki steps down in 2009.

As deputy president, Jacob Zuma would have been expected to naturally step up to the ANC presidency.

However, he has been tainted by controversy - charges of corruption and rape - which his supporters say are the result of a political conspiracy against him, even though neither has resulted in a conviction.

'Outrage'

Keith Gottschalk, head of political studies at the University of the Western Cape says that even under normal circumstances, the position of deputy president is no guarantee of taking over the top job.

"It simply means that you're in a stronger starting-post position than all your rivals. In the case of Jacob Zuma, there is of course the huge controversies around the corruption conviction of [his financial adviser] Schabir Shaik.

"Some of Zuma's verbal remarks and those of his supporters have outraged black women professionals and business women."

Despite the controversy surrounding him, there is no denying Mr Zuma's popularity, especially among people within his own Zulu constituency.

As the leadership race hots up, signs of tension among various factions within the party have already started surfacing.

It is something that Mr Gottschalk says the ANC will have to be wary of.

"We've seen for example that the only times President Mbeki is booed in public is when it's a Zulu-speaking KwaZulu Natal.

"That's not the case in other provinces - so that's already a warning that the top ANC managers need to impress on rivals that rivalry for a job must always be subordinate to keeping the organisation together."

'Kite-flying'

The leadership of the powerful trade union federation Cosatu, one of the ANC's alliance partners, has already come out in support of Mr Zuma, while at the same time criticising President Mbeki for his economic policies and for what they say is his inability to relate to the masses.

Western Cape Cosatu General Secretary Tony Ehrenreich believes the ANC conference will see the party taking a new direction.

"We think we're going to see a big change in leadership - to somebody who's more in tune with the needs of the African communities and the challenge for Africa and South African poor working class communities in particular.

"So it's going to be an interesting conference. It's going to be about taking back the ANC to the working class and away from the kind of technocratic solutions that we've seen in the past," he said.

Amid rising tensions between the ANC's Zuma and Mbeki factions, newspaper reports indicate that businessman Tokyo Sexwale has been approached by high-ranking supporters from both camps to enter the leadership race as a compromise candidate.

Mr Sexwale, a former Robben Island prisoner and premier of Gauteng province between 1994 and 1998 when he left politics, has denied the reports as "kite-flying".

Senior officials within the ANC however realise the need for the leadership battle to be resolved without causing too many ructions within the party.

Alongside Mr Sexwale, the name of another politician-turned-businessman, Cyril Ramaphosa, is also being touted as a possible party leader.

To-do list

As the ANC prepares for its leadership battle, there are a number of issues that ordinary people feel need to be addressed by the governing party, as I found out on the streets of Cape Town.

"I'd like for the government to work on the education system so that they can proceed in seeing that we get free education in this country," one man said.

"The government must try to restructure its HIV/Aids policy and also it must concentrate more on strengthening its policies to fight corruption within the government departments," said another.

"We need to see more people work and less shacks outside the airport," said a third.

During this year there is also the small matter of preparations for the 2010 World Cup.

The government will also have to deal with unemployment, which is believed to be as high as 40% and the high levels of violent crime.

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