South Africa's ANC Begins Vote for President
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
In South Africa, the current president is in a fierce fight for the leadership of the African National Congress. Thabo Mbeki is battling his archrival at this week's Annual ANC Convention. Why it matters is that whoever heads the party decides who leads the country.
NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports.
Unidentified Woman: The candidates for today are Thabo Mbeki and Comrade Jacob Zuma. Thank you.
(Soundbite of applause)
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Finally, hours behind schedule, the official nomination for president of the African National Congress ruling party.
The two candidates - current president, Thabo Mbeki, and the party's deputy president, Jacob Zuma - have been in a highly contentious campaign, their relations severely strained since Mbeki fired Zuma from his government post as deputy president over corruption allegations two years ago.
Both Mbeki and Zuma smiled throughout the nominating process, as they and other members of the organization went into damage-control mode, trying to contain the most decisive struggle in the organization's 96-year history.
(Soundbite of noisy crowd)
HUNTER-GAULT: The signs of division and tension were everywhere, not least pro-Zuma delegates booing President Mbeki's two-and-a-half hour political report and loudly singing the Zuma signature song, "Awulethe Umshini Wami" - Zulu for "Bring Me My Machinegun."
The ANC deployed its big guns to limit the damage, speaking with unusual candor to the media.
Mr. JEFF RADEBE (Member, The National Executive Committee-ANC; Minister of Transport) …was not what we are used to in ANC conferences.
HUNTER-GAULT: Jeff Radebe is a member of the highest-ranking ANC body, the National Executive Committee, and government minister of transport.
Mr. RADEBE: The tension was very visible in the conference, you know, because if you were there, you could cut it with a knife.
HUNTER-GAULT: Radebe assured the media…
Mr. RADEBE: Delegates have calmed down now. There's more understanding that we cannot afford a conference that does not do its task because of the behavior of certain individuals.
HUNTER-GAULT: The whip cracking seems to have worked on some delegates, including Daniel Lowana(ph), an official in the Eastern Cape branch.
Mr. DANIEL LOWANA (Delegate, Eastern Cape Branch): There's nothing sinister here. All what we have come here for is to pronounce on what the branches have said, that is the ANC. And the ANC is not different from any other movement that is today. And the ANC will still remain intact.
HUNTER-GAULT: But some, like a delegate from the Free State who would not give his name for fear of party retribution, think…
Unidentified Man: If one can (unintelligible) - I can see the tension. I don't believe those who doesn't win will be comfortable.
HUNTER-GAULT: Some argue that the decisions within the ANC are a reflection of new members in the organization, which has swelled in the last few years by some 200,000 members. Many of those are not wedded to the old ANC culture and traditions. But their departure from those, some argue, are not threatening to the party or the country, rather…
Dr. STEVEN FRIEDMAN (Political Analyst, Institute for Democracy in South Africa) It's a crisis in a Greek sense, which means that it may well be a turning point.
HUNTER-GAULT: Steven Friedman, of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, argues ANC leaders in the main have been chosen by other leaders, not the rank and file now raising its voice in the conference. He says the competition between Mbeki and Zuma is probably healthy for a young democracy.
Dr. FRIEDMAN: The last election was 58 years ago. It's not impossible that this election will turn the ANC into a far more vigorously democratic organization in which grassroots people will feel that they have far more to say.
HUNTER-GAULT: Voting by 3,900 delegates is underway, with ballots being counted manually - a procedure that delayed the process by almost a day, but which some agitated delegates demanded to avoid, they argued, the possibility of vote rigging. The winner could be announced as early as today.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR News, Polokwane, South Africa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.