South Africa Grows Up

This weekend, 5,000 delegates of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress will gather in the dusty northern town of Polokwane to elect their next leader. They are faced with the choice of two bitter rivals who were once, as successors to Nelson Mandela, the closest of allies: the incumbent president, Thabo Mbeki, and his former deputy, Jacob Zuma.

Mr. Mbeki is constitutionally precluded from serving again when his term ends in 2009, but if he were to win the party leadership, he could select his own successor. A victory by Mr. Zuma would be a radical changing of the guard.

At preparatory provincial nomination conferences in November, A.N.C. delegates selected Mr. Zuma by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Though there is a chance that some votes will swing to Mr. Mbeki, Mr. Zuma clearly has the advantage.

This is perplexing to many outsiders, given that Mr. Mbeki has earned an international reputation as a voice for progress and prosperity on the African continent — a reputation that was enhanced two years ago when he fired Mr. Zuma, then implicated in a corruption scandal. Mr. Mbeki’s supporters say Mr. Zuma has little respect for the rule of law, that he has dodgy friends and a tendency toward demagoguery, and that he lacks the judgment required for highest office. Under Mr. Zuma, they say, their young democracy could degenerate into another neocolonial African kleptocracy.

Is there any foundation to this anxiety? Will the Polokwane conference set in motion a tragic final act to one of the world’s greatest liberation narratives? Not necessarily. Instead, the current contest is mainly an indicator that South Africa’s democracy has matured and is ready for meaningful political debate.

Mr. Mbeki and Mr. Zuma, allies for more than two decades, share credit for bringing South Africa to a peaceful settlement after apartheid and transforming it into a stable market economy. They also share blame for an inability to separate party and state, which has inevitably led to patronage and corruption.

At first, their split was personal. Mr. Zuma felt ostracized by Mr. Mbeki, while Mr. Mbeki came to feel threatened by Mr. Zuma, and even accused him of participating in a coup plot in 2001. Around that same time, evidence emerged implicating Mr. Zuma in a scandal relating to arms procurement. The firing came in 2005, when a court found Mr. Zuma’s financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, guilty of soliciting a bribe on Mr. Zuma’s behalf.

Mr. Zuma and his supporters responded by accusing Mr. Mbeki of abusing the organs of state to wage a political campaign against him, driven by an unseemly desire to hold onto power.

Soon enough, the two men found themselves on either side of a deeper divide. Mr. Zuma found common cause with those on the party’s left flank, who felt shut out by the president’s policies of fiscal conservatism and his aloof style.

The leaders of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party are now the primary architects of Mr. Zuma’s campaign. They believe that as a canny but uneducated son of the soil, he is more in touch with the aspirations of South Africa’s masses, whose lives have barely changed since apartheid. Mr. Mbeki’s supporters, for their part, worry that a Zuma presidency might undo the meticulous stitching of the country into the global economy undertaken over the past 15 years.

That a majority of A.N.C. members have put their faith in Mr. Zuma is an indictment of Mr. Mbeki’s abilities to bridge the widening class divide. There is no guarantee that Mr. Zuma could do any better, but he is renowned as a consensus-building politician, and at least he would be required to try.

Even if he is elected party leader next week, there is no certainty that Mr. Zuma will be the next president. The authorities are gearing up to charge him with corruption, and if he were to be found guilty, he would be disqualified from holding office.

But whatever happens, the fissure in the A.N.C. brings a long-overdue logic to South African politics. Since the early 1990s, the left and center have been held together by the skein of a joint struggle for freedom — and, of course, the allure of power. One of the best possible legacies of the current political turmoil would be the collapse of the de facto one-party state — and its replacement by a real choice for South African voters.

Already the split in the A.N.C. has opened up space for robust criticism of hitherto untouchable South African leaders. And it has forced a healthy challenge to the deathtrap of African democracy: the ruler-for-life syndrome.

Gone, too, is that beguiling myth of the Mandela era: that the A.N.C. is a cathedral of morality. The truth is that it is a rowdy hall of competing interests, driven by patronage and riven by personality, grubby with politics. It is no longer a liberation movement but the ruling party of a young and healthy — messy and unpredictable — democracy.

Mark Gevisser, the author, most recently, of Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred.