Jacob Zuma, the Teflon politician of South Africa, has performed one of the most stunning comebacks in the country's history. Despite having been sacked by Thabo Mbeki in 2005 for alleged corruption, remaining the target of an ongoing corruption investigation, and having faced accusations of rape, he yesterday swept to the leadership of the ruling African National Congress, defeating the incumbent, President Mbeki.Zuma's challenge is to keep the deeply divided ANC together, while delivering on his promises to a disparate and expectant support base. As if this were not enough, he will have to convince South Africa's anxious establishment - black and white - that his Lazarus-like rise does not herald the apocalypse. What is obvious from the fractious party conference is that Africa's oldest and most respected liberation movement is split into two camps. Even Nelson Mandela, who did not attend, felt compelled to send a message to delegates saying he was ashamed of the infighting in the movement, for whose ideals he went to prison for 27 years. Archbishop Desmond Tutu pleaded with delegates not to vote for someone who will embarrass the country.
The scale of the internal conflict made it impossible for a compromise candidate to emerge. A younger, more dynamic generation of ANC leaders, proposing radical change to outdated traditions, were too much for many ANC apparatchiks. At a time when South Africa is crying out for democratic renewal, an overhaul of stagnant political culture and institutions, and fresh ideas in the face of poverty, unemployment and inequality, this conservatism has potentially grave consequences.
How, then, did Zuma make it to the top? His success was born largely of ANC grassroots supporters' belief that Mbeki has failed to translate the country's remarkable economic success into prosperity for the impoverished black population. Two weeks before the ANC conference, Mbeki angrily denounced an independent study saying poverty has doubled among the poorest since 1996. He has rebuffed demands by party activists (demands supported, indeed, by the white opposition parties) for improved income support. His now notorious position on HIV Aids, meanwhile, leaves many regarding him as out of touch, cold and uncaring.
Zuma has adroitly used the grassroots calls for change to his advantage, selling himself as a pro-poor, sympathetic, man-of-the-people candidate, in contrast to the wooden, aloof Mbeki. The glue that holds Zuma's coalition within the ANC together, however, is dislike for Mbeki. Unable to find someone among their own ranks with the stature to lead the ANC, they have settled on Zuma, despite his controversial past, as long as he gives voice to their policy proposals. Before the ANC conference, key elements within the Zuma camp resolved to ballot members on a breakaway from the ANC in the event of a Zuma loss.
Although South Africa won't plunge into anarchy, the chances are that Zuma's ascendancy to the presidency will herald a period of political uncertainty that until recently few thought possible, given the ANC's record of maturity. The Zuma victory means that the period between now and the likely 2009 general election, when Mbeki's constitutionally limited two-term presidency ends, will be one of heightened tensions between a lame duck Mbeki and a resurgent party leader in Zuma. Although Zuma has indicated that he will not seek a vote of no-confidence in Mbeki to trigger an early election, many of his supporters on the ANC's left have and will continue to demand that he do so.
As if that were not enough, South Africa could yet confront the unprecedented spectacle of the ruling party leader spending time in court fighting off corruption, fraud and bribery charges. National prosecutors indicated in the lead-up to the conference that they have more compelling evidence against Zuma in South Africa's controversial multi-billion rand arms deal.
For all the doubts that hang over Zuma's character, many argue that he offers a critical conduit for the poor's grievances. These people are going to be disappointed. The ragbag collection of groups that back Zuma ranges from socialists and trade unionists to supporters of virginity testing and the death penalty. Dashed expectations may be the catalyst for a breakup of the ANC - a breakup which is debatably overdue and can only be good for democracy.
For all its shortcomings, the process completed yesterday has been ultimately constructive. The achilles heel of most African liberation movements has been their failure to have competitive elections, either out of fear of division, or deference to the sitting leader. Importantly, both these stifling taboos have now been broken in the ANC. The election has been insufficient and stifled, but even the limited democratic space it has opened is a step forward. Zuma will almost certainly face tougher scrutiny and more urgent demands to deliver. And, critically, a precedent has been set: grassroots members can vote out unresponsive leaders. William Gumede's book Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC has just been published.