South Africa’s corrupt, lecherous front-runner for president is actually the country’s best hope for democracy
South Africa

Oh, and then there was that rape case. In November 2005, the daughter of a friend of Zuma’s claimed that he had raped her. A court ultimately dismissed the charges, saying the sex was consensual. Still, Zuma hardly boosted his image in a nation with one of the world’s worst AIDS crises, and where he himself once headed the national AIDS organization, by claiming during the trial that he reduced his risk of contracting HIV from the woman, who was HIV-positive, because he took a shower after they had sex.

Zuma’s policy leanings appear little more enlightened. A former member of the apartheid-era armed wing of the ANC, Zuma retains many of his militant and populist tendencies. Known for bellowing out anti-apartheid songs like “Bring Me My Machine Gun,” Zuma also has worried many South African companies because of his links to trade unions, socialists, and South Africa’s communists, who played a major role in the anti-apartheid struggle and still wield influence in the country. Playing on popular anger that South Africa’s post-apartheid era has not delivered enough poverty reduction, Zuma and his allies have called for greater wealth redistribution. “We think this (Mr. Mbeki's) flirtation with neo-liberal policies has been absolutely disastrous for our development," the head of the country’s biggest trade union told the Financial Times.

Little wonder, then, that many of the suave, international advisors around current South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has presided over a period of business-friendly orthodox fiscal management and strong growth, could barely conceal their disdain for Zuma. According to the Daily Telegraph, one senior ANC official was overheard saying that “if Jacob Zuma became president, it was time to flee South Africa.”

And yet for all of Zuma’s numerous flaws, his triumph in the ANC election should be celebrated. The ANC poll probably will bring to power a president far more troubled, and far less polished, than Mbeki. But the poll also shows that, unlike countries like Zimbabwe or Namibia, South Africa is not headed toward becoming a one-party state where a small circle of ruling elites meet in back rooms to transfer power amongst each other. (Mbeki himself was essentially installed as president as the choice of the first post-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela.)

In fact, Zuma’s victory demonstrates just the opposite. The ANC mandarins around Mbeki would have preferred any other leader than the fiery populist. For months, they maneuvered to have Mbeki himself elected head of the ANC, which would allow the president to essentially select the party’s candidate for president before the 2009 election. Leading South African figures like Archbishop Desmond Tutu condemned Zuma, with Saki Macozoma, head of one of the country’s biggest financial services companies, saying that a Zuma presidency would be a “calamity” for the nation. At the ANC conference in December, Mbeki himself spoke at length about the danger of corruption, a barely veiled swipe at his rival.

All these efforts failed: The aloof Mbeki had not listened closely enough to the party members demands for more accountability and wealth redistribution from government. Instead, Zuma’s raucous supporters commandeered the 4,000 delegates at the ANC meeting, singing and bellowing to drown out Mbeki, and ultimately delivering their man an overwhelming victory with some 60 percent of delegates.

Compared to the bland, scripted election meetings of many other African leaders, which seem more like coronations, the ANC gathering seemed more like the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention--a sometimes-out-of-control meeting but clearly a sign of grassroots democracy.

Indeed, as South African commentator Steven Friedman wrote after the ANC meeting, this was a significant change:  "In no post-independence African country has a sitting president been peacefully and democratically defeated by his own party.” Or as one Zuma backer reportedly screamed after the victory: “The members have taken back the party.” And since the ANC still faces no real opposition party, the fact that it has established vibrant intra-party democracy means that these members are unlikely to be silent again. On a continent where real democracy usually remains an illusion, this was a landmark indeed.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a special correspondent for The New Republic.

By Joshua Kurlantzick