The new struggle for South Africa

Zuma is set to topple Mbeki from ANC leadership in fight that will reverberate across continent
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The Independent Online

Long ago, in that distant age when the only Mercedes Benz at large gatherings of the African National Congress was the red one Nelson Mandela rode in, the recently released prisoner and ANC president would lecture his fellow leaders on how to persuade the Afrikaners to give up power peacefully. It is not a question merely of addressing their heads, he would say, we must also address their hearts.

It is as a contest between the head and the heart that one can define the rowdy electoral contest under way for the ANC presidency, a contest whose outcome this week could determine whether South Africa remains for the rest of the African continent a model of democratic stability and macroeconomic health or dwindles into slow decay.

The rivals are President Thabo Mbeki, who seeks to perpetuate his grip on power in South Africa beyond his term of office through extended control of the ruling party, and Jacob Zuma, an old ANC warhorse over whose head hang allegations of jailable corruption, but who has reinvented himself since surviving a rape trial last year as a formidable political bruiser.

If he wins the ANC election, the way will be clear for Mr Zuma to replace Mr Mbeki as president of the country in 18 months' time. Should Mr Zuma win, and become South Africa's next president, the hope is that he will be sufficiently content to have achieved his goal of securing high office that he will be content to leave the running of the country to a team of well-qualified cabinet ministers and advisers. The fear is that he will be manipulated by self-seekers and emerge as an incompetent jobs-for-the-boys despot.

In neither of the two men is that balance present that Mr Mandela advocated, and epically exemplified. Mr Mbeki is all head, and Mr Zuma is all heart. The inaugural speech that Mr Mbeki gave at the ANC national conference in Polokwane, 120 miles south of the Zimbabwean border, was an appeal to pure reason. There was no attempt to bypass the brain and grab his listeners' emotions. Two and a half hours of unremittingly soporific logic, it was Fidel Castro without the pregnant pauses, the rises and falls, the raging histrionics. As a last-ditch attempt to rally the people to his cause (presumably what it was intended to be), it was calamitously limp.

Within seconds of Mr Mbeki delivering his perfunctory closing "Amandla!", Mr Zuma's supporters were up on their feet celebrating their leader in boisterous song and dance. As if to say, "Thank you, Thabo, we've sat here politely enough as you droned on. Be grateful for that. Now, please, exit stage right. Forever."

Mr Mbeki did not attempt to fire up the crowd for the sad and simple reason that he cannot. The 4,000 ANC delegates under the vast tented canopy in the University of Limpopo campus looked at the small distant figure on the podium and many of them the majority did not recognise themselves in him.

Mr Zuma and Mr Mbeki are such polar opposites that they might almost belong to different species. They are the same age and both have somehow managed to cohabit in the ANC's big tent for more than 40 years, but that is all they have in common.

Mr Zuma is self-confident but not bright. Mr Mbeki is bright but insecure. Mr Zuma is affable, expansive and good with a crowd. Mr Mbeki is uptight. Mr Zuma is an African traditionalist who looks good in a leopardskin and knows how to wield a big ceremonial stick. Mr Mbeki is a pipe-smoking, whisky-drinking, Shakespeare-quoting Sussex University academic who affects to portray himself as an African renaissance man.

When in an interview the other day Mr Mbeki scorned the notion of a leader being chosen on the strength of "how well he dances", he revealed how out of touch he was. Everybody else at that conference has been dancing. Mr Mandela used to dance, and they loved him for it. Mr Zuma dances and, without opening his mouth, without spouting one clever argument, he has the crowd in his hand.

You look at Mr Zuma and what you see is a black South African writ large. Big-smiling, affable, warm. When he opens his mouth to speak at this conference, he won't be taut and tense and afraid to let his passions rip.

But it is the sense in which Mr Mbeki's aloof manner is perceived by so many in the ANC to reflect a solitary, extraterrestrial style of government which has been the clincher for Mr Zuma; the secret of the support he has received, for all his flaws. If Mr Zuma is chummy, cuddly, "one of the boys", then that means he will be chummy and cuddly in the way he governs. Parliament and the ANC branches will be part of the decision-making process; they won't be scorned by a brainbox leader.

Or so, at any rate, goes the logic of the heart to which Mr Zuma appeals. That's the message more by body language than by words that Mr Zuma is transmitting. And it is an effective one right now; so effective that it has propelled a man who on the substance is one of the least qualified to run the ANC, let alone the country, within an inch of so doing.

As of yesterday, feeling in Polokwane ran high and the political energy was more visibly (and audibly) aligned with Mr Zuma. With voting not due till today or tomorrow, and with the Mbeki camp putting pressure on ANC delegates to vote their way, there is still time for the logic of the head to kick in. But the mood in Polokwane suggests that the time may have come for Jacob Zuma, the leader who appeals to the unreasoning heart.

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