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“The (African National Congress) should not choose someone of whom most of us would be ashamed,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has a fair claim to being South Africa’s living conscience. But on Tuesday the ANC did choose Jacob Zuma as the new party leader, giving him an almost unbeatable advantage in the race to become the country’s next president.

The law only allows Mbeki two terms in the presidency, and he wanted to hold on to the ANC leadership to exert influence over the choice of the next president after he steps down in 2009. But most of the 4,000 ANC delegates were not at all ashamed of choosing Zuma, who won the leadership with a 60 per cent majority.

Zuma’s supporters also made a clean sweep of all five other senior positions in the ANC leadership. Unless he dies or is convicted of some crime between now and 2009, he will be the ANC’s candidate for the presidency — and since the ANC still wins national elections almost automatically, he is very likely to be President Zuma eighteen months from now. How bad would that be?

Thabo Mbeki thinks it would be very bad. The two men were once close political allies despite the huge contrast between their backgrounds: Mbeki the austere intellectual with a master’s degree in economics, Zuma the charismatic demagogue with no formal education. But when Zuma was charged with corruption two years ago Mbeki dismissed him as deputy president.

The corruption charges were dismissed when a court ruled that documents seized during a raid by the National Prosecuting Authority on Zuma’s office and home could not be used against him because the search warrant was defective. He also escaped conviction in a rape case brought against him by the daughter of an old ANC comrade-in-arms. And he began his campaign for the leadership of the ANC, the surest route to the presidency itself.

One of the boys

He has won precisely because of what Mbeki sees as his flaws. The rank-and-file membership of the ANC have grown weary of Mbeki’s distant, almost other-worldly style of leadership, whereas Zuma sings and dances and wears traditional costumes and is definitely one of the boys.

On the other hand, what Mbeki, the South African middle class of all colours, and foreign investors see in Zuma is a classic African “big man”-style leader in the making. He is not a monster, but he has little respect for the law. His populist instincts would sabotage South Africa’s economic growth, and his dependence on better-educated advisers and old cronies would open the door to massive corruption.

It is not just white South Africans who fear that the nation could all too easily go the way of so many other African countries if the wrong people get into power. For Mbeki, for Tutu, and one suspects even for Nelson Mandela , Zuma is the man who could wreck the dream.

The law is starting to intervene again. The Supreme Court has just declared the documents seized from Zuma admissible in court, and prosecutors have submitted an affidavit alleging that Zuma received 4 million rand (about $550,000) from a French arms company while he was deputy president. His former financial adviser is already serving a 15-year prison sentence for soliciting a bribe from that company in exchange for Zuma’s support, and if he cannot get those documents ruled out of court again he is in big trouble.

Odds are that nothing will go wrong, however. Zuma will probably become the president of South Africa in 2009, and then we will see if the fears about him are justified or not. But here’s one positive aspect of the situation: last Tuesday was the first time in 58 years that the ANC has chosen its leader by an open vote.

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