Saturday, September 27, 2008

SA picks president, but uncertainty remains

Kgalema Motlanthe, 59, a former trade unionist once imprisoned during the apartheid era on charges of terrorism, was overwhelmingly elected by Parliament as South Africa’s president.

But whether he merely keeps the seat warm until elections next year — when Jacob Zuma, his party’s leader, presumably will take over — depends on whether Mr. Zuma, 66, can continue to skirt the corruption charges that have long followed him.

Two weeks ago, a High Court judge not only threw out those charges on procedural grounds, but also implied that President Thabo Mbeki and his cabinet had meddled in the case. The opinion led the hierarchy of the governing African National Congress to demand that Mr. Mbeki step down, leading to the quick ascension of Mr. Motlanthe as an interim president.

The judge’s action, however, has been appealed by the National Prosecuting Authority. If the appeal succeeds, or if the charges against Mr. Zuma are simply filed again after the procedural mistakes are corrected, party elders could view Mr. Motlanthe as an ace in the hole rather than as a caretaker.

The A.N.C. dominates the political landscape here. In the last national elections, in 2004, it won nearly 70 percent of the votes.

But Robert B. Mattes, the director of social science research at the University of Cape Town, said that an ever-larger portion of the population had grown disenchanted with the party since the days of Nelson Mandela.

“This is reflected in a 30-point decline in voter turnout between 1994 and 2004,” he said. “Black voters unhappy with the ANC simply stay at home rather than switch their allegiance to an opposition party.”

Cynics here suggest that the entire reason for sidelining Mr. Mbeki was to make sure that Mr. Zuma’s legal problems disappeared.

Mr. Mbeki is suspected of suspending Vusi Pikoli, the leader of the National Prosecuting Authority, last year to stop the intended prosecution of a political ally, Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi. To some in the ANC, a similar dismissal now to protect Mr. Zuma might seem a practicable tactic.

But such a strategy would also seem venal — and Mr. Zuma has already been buffeted by years of accusations. In 2005, his financial adviser was convicted of brokering bribes Mr. Zuma’s way, which led to the corruption case.

In 2006, Mr. Zuma was acquitted on charges of raping a 31-year-old family friend. He testified that the woman had courted sex by sitting provocatively, and his Zulu upbringing had left him no choice but to oblige her.

Mr. Motlanthe is as reserved as Mr. Zuma is gregarious. The new president is not well known to many South Africans, though he is a familiar figure in the party He spent 10 years imprisoned on Robben Island. He became active in the labor movement as an officer with the miners. He was the A.N.C.’s secretary general from 1997 to 2007.

After being sworn in on Thursday in Cape Town, Mr. Motlanthe promised to keep South Africa on much the same path Mr. Mbeki had followed. “Mine is not a desire to deviate from what is working,” he said.

He announced the reappointment of the finance minister, Trevor Manuel, who is credited with keeping the nation’s economy at a hum. He announced one major change, however. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has been given a new position as a minister in the presidency. In her previous job, health minister, she became a polarizing figure for espousing beetroot, garlic and lemon as a cure for AIDS. The new minister of health will be Barbara Hogan, a senior A.N.C. member of Parliament who is viewed as a welcome choice by groups that campaign for the distribution of antiretroviral medications.

Zackie Achmat, an anti-AIDS advocate, told a South African television reporter, “It’s a great day.”

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