Changing The Guard

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News headlines in South Africa's media on December 19 all focused on one story, the election the day before of Jacob Zuma as the new president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

At the ANC's national conference at Polokwane, Zuma's resounding victory over incumbent and head of state Thabo Mbeki was received with mixed feelings, with headlines as diverse as "Chaos looming" and "Dismal Day" to the far more reassuring "No economic shift expected after Zuma win".

Though no longer the leader of the ANC, Mbeki still has another 18 months to serve as president. However, without the backing of his party, many are predicting he will have trouble wielding authority, both within the ANC and over the government.

This could have an impact on South Africa's economic policy over the next year and a half, with Zuma and his supporters who now control the ANC's internal machinery in a position to push for the adoption of the more populist policies they have espoused in the run up to the ballot.

Zuma, from the left wing of the ANC, has long called for the dividends of South Africa's strong economic performance over the past few years to be spread more widely, arguing that the poorer segments of society have benefited little from the expanding Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and increased state revenues.

The new ANC leader himself has gone to pains to reassure investors both at home and abroad that as party chief, and the probable next head of state, he had no intention of orchestrating a major change of economic policy.

That said, Zuma has not gone into details about the economic policies that he will support as ANC leader, though his newly elected deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, shrugged off calls from South Africa's powerful union movement and the Communist Party for a sea change in policy. Labour organisations and the Communist Party, which supported Zuma's bid, are pressing for an easing of monetary policy and increased assistance for the poor and jobless.

While grateful for the backing of the left, Motlanthe said the new ANC leadership would not be in debt to the unions.

"There is no room for payback," Motlanthe said after the ballot. "Basic policy will not change."

Former South African president Frederik Willem de Klerk, who made history by dismantling apartheid and helping usher in majority rule under his successor Nelson Mandela, had both congratulations and a warning for Zuma not to radically overhaul economic policy.

"I welcome Zuma's assurances that he will maintain the balanced macro-economic policies that have assured 13 years of uninterrupted economic growth," said de Klerk. "These policies also represent by far the best prospect for the promotion of the long-term interests of the poor."

Less reassuring was a research note issued by investment bank Goldman Sachs, which said, "We expect a lengthy period of political noise and uncertainty in South Africa, characterised by tensions within the ANC and between the party and the government."

However, despite having received an overwhelming endorsement from the ANC's rank and file, with 61% of the 3834 delegates at the party conference voting in favour of his candidacy, Zuma may not have an armchair ride to the presidency.

There is at least one dark cloud hanging on the horizon of his political career, a long running investigation into corruption that could yet rain on Zuma's parade.

Charges against Zuma involving allegations of bribery in an arms deal were dropped last year, though the case is still under investigation. Earlier this month, prosecutors revealed they had uncovered further evidence to support new charges being laid.

The initial allegations, which surfaced in 2005, saw Zuma's financial advisor sentenced to 15 years behind bars after being found guilty of corruption and fraud. Though never convicted, the charges proved to be a major setback in Zuma's career, with Mbeki removing him from his post as deputy president, a move at the time many thought signalled the end of Zuma's active role in politics.

Two years on and having also seen charges of rape dropped last year, Zuma has returned to the centre of South Africa's political stage. Having got there, he must win over those concerned by his populist, far left image while also convincing his supporters that he can deliver on promises of fairer distribution of wealth from the economic boom.

On present form, there is little doubt Zuma will be elected South Africa's next president when polls are held in the first half of 2009, as long as he does not fall foul of the law. In the meantime, the country could well have a lame duck president and the man who would be king facing off against each other, one trying to shore up his legacy as a firm economic manager and the other seeking to establish his economic credentials.

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