Leading article: On the road to democracy

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Jacob Zuma's acquittal this week on a rape charge raises some uncomfortable questions about South Africa's future. Mr Zuma, one of the heroes of the African National Congress resistance to apartheid, has long been touted as the country's next leader. If he can also see off a corruption charge this summer, his campaign to take over from Thabo Mbeki in 2009 will begin in earnest.

President Mbeki, for all his faults, deserves credit for respecting his country's presidential term limits, unlike certain other elected African leaders. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that South African democracy is still lacking. The ANC continues to sweep all before it. The new leader is certain to come from within its ranks. The country urgently needs to develop a genuine multi-party system.

In the meantime, the question of the leadership remains critical. Mr Mbeki's favoured successor is his new deputy, Phumzile Mlambo-Nguka. She cuts an impressive figure, but lacks the popular appeal of Mr Zuma. A fierce contest is likely. Mr Zuma has already alleged a conspiracy by some within the ANC to scupper his chances.

But Mr Zuma is, in truth, his own worst enemy. He may have been acquitted of rape, but serious questions about his judgement emerged in the trial. His admission that he had unprotected sex with a woman he knew to be HIV positive would have been grossly irresponsible behaviour by any politician. But in South Africa, which has more HIV cases within its borders than any other country, it is even more reprehensible. For a disgracefully long time, the South African government refused to provide anti-retroviral drugs for its 6 million infected people. Mr Mbeki even notoriously questioned whether HIV was the cause of Aids. Is the country really likely to see its lamentable record on combating Aids improve under a Zuma presidency?

Let no one diminish what South Africa has achieved since apartheid crumbled in 1994. The cultivation of equal rights and the rule of law (of which Mr Zuma was a beneficiary this week) from the barren soil of racist repression and violence is humbling.

Let no one argue, either, that the country was materially better off under white rule. The former shanty-towns are still plagued with poverty and crime, but overall conditions have vastly improved. Most of the country now has electricity and water. And South Africa retains its position as the continent's biggest economy.

Nelson Mandela's "Rainbow Nation" is still Africa's beacon of hope. But it must guard against choosing leaders who - for all their achievements in the past - will take the country nowhere.

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