The African National Congress, the continent's oldest liberation movement, faces its moment of truth. South Africa's millions of poor blacks have gained little from the economic boom that has produced 5 per cent annual growth rates for the past two years. Apart from voting every five years, the country's celebrated turn to democracy in 1994 has not brought them much.
On 16 December 4,000 ANC members will assemble for the party's five-yearly national conference in the small northern town of Polokwane. The election for party leader is likely to be a face-off between two old liberation warhorses: the state and ANC president, Thabo Mbeki, and Jacob Zuma, the ANC deputy president. Zuma was cleared last year of charges of rape, although he admitted having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman who told the court she had looked up to him as a surrogate father. He still faces allegations of fraud and corruption over an arms sales scandal. Yet, in spite of this, Zuma is the clear favourite to become head of the ANC. His victory would pile pressure on Mbeki to stand down as state president, leaving South African politics in some disarray.
The most dispiriting aspect of the election is that younger and more innovative candidates have been discouraged from standing. The gathering takes place as the majority black population demands change in the party. After years of drift, South African society is in desperate need of renewal, fresh leadership and new ideas. Trust in government and democratic institutions has collapsed. Opinion polls show many people believe parliament has become a rubber stamp; voters cannot hold representatives responsible because of the party list system, in which MPs are accountable to party leaders rather than constituencies. Under public pressure, Mbeki appointed a commission in 2002 to investigate whether South Africa needed a new electoral system, but its report has been gathering dust in the president's office since it was delivered in 2004.
The ANC's moral authority is brittle. Senior figures who behave badly - and who are close to the party leadership - are either not sanctioned, or get away with a slap on the wrist. A deputy minister, Malusi Gigaba, used a government credit card to pay for flowers to his wife and trips for associates. His boss, the home affairs minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, merely said that the parliamentary rulebook did not lay out the "dos and don'ts" clearly enough.
But the law appears to move very quickly against those who have fallen foul of the ANC elite, such as Vusi Pikoli, director of the National Prosecuting Authority, who was suspended this September after seeking a warrant to arrest Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi over alleged links to criminal syndicates. Mbeki said that he and the minister of justice and constitutional affairs should have been consulted first.
The Anglican archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu describes South Africa as having lost its moral direction. He points to the high incidence of violence against women and children, breakdown of family structures, desecration of the environment, rising ethnic and racial division, increased inequality and a declining sense of social justice. "We imagined that because we had this noble cause, the vast majority of people were idealistic. We thought we were going to transfer it automatically to the time when we were free. It's not happened," Tutu said last year.
Few ideas have come from the heart of power about how to reverse the slide. Often the focus has been more on wrangling over statistics: how many are really poor or have died of HIV/Aids. Some in the ANC leadership still express doubt about whether the pandemic exists. The small coterie running the party has close ties dating from the years in exile under apartheid. Such is the fear of antagonising Mbeki, and such is the atmosphere of fawning, that policies are often poorly drafted and not properly scrutinised.
Under Mbeki's watch, the rights to dissent and debate have diminished considerably. Loyal friends of the president are protected, such as the health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, even though she has overseen the near-collapse of the public health system and has been in a state of denial over HIV/Aids. Those speaking out can expect to be quickly silenced. A few months ago, Tshabalala-Msimang's former deputy Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge was fired for saying that the number of preventable infant deaths in public hospitals was a disgrace.
If white, internal critics are often labelled as racists; if black, they are derided as "sell-outs" or "native assistants" of whites and foreign powers. Astonishingly, the ANC leadership is now proposing to debate whether to introduce a tribunal to regulate the media at the forthcoming conference. "We are concerned about legislation that will have a massive impact on media freedom," says Jovial Rantao, chairman of the South African editors' forum, citing the Film and Publications Bill, the National Key Points Act and other legislation restricting the use of terms relating to the 2010 Fifa World Cup.
The ANC is also considering a proposal to put control of individual courts in executive hands, contrary to the constitution's clear stipulation on separation of powers. The veteran human rights lawyer George Bizos said the proposed constitutional amendments were "a threat to the independence of the courts and could be the first step towards an epic battle between the legislature and the judiciary". Although not perfect, the judiciary - especially at the highest level, the Constitutional Court - has done more than any other institution to set ethical standards for public life.
Paradoxically, it was only when the most unlikely and least credible of critics spoke out that attention started to be paid to the failings of the ANC. Zuma was fired as South Africa's deputy president in 2005 following allegations of sleaze. With his back to the wall, he attacked Mbeki and the ANC's record in government - although he has been careful not to mention the president by name. After Zuma's comments, to dismiss criticism as coming from bitter whites or the left-wing fringe no longer sounded so convincing.
Now it has gone a stage further. Mbeki's penchant for suspending internal democracy within the ANC to push through unpopular policies, marginalise critics and shout down alternative views has led to an unprecedented rebellion by grass-roots members. There has been a wave of spontaneous community protests, against corrupt local representatives, poor services and rude public servants. Zuma has skilfully exploited discontent with Mbeki to portray himself as a humble, pro-poor alternative, inclusive and caring and less sensitive to criticism.
Mbeki, meanwhile, is clinging on. He tells public rallies - and anyone else who wishes to hear - that he has brought macroeconomic stability and made South Africa a diplomatic force in the world. Yet at home he has failed to address a rising tide of poverty and unemployment.
New leaders for a new era
Even if Mbeki does cling on to the party leadership, he would, with elections due for the South African presidency in 2009, become a lame duck, as under the constitution he is not allowed to stand for a third time. A good leader knows when to go: ask Nelson Mandela, who left at the zenith of his power after one term. Sadly, this is often the moment when new democracies stall. Leaders overstay their welcome; new blood, new thinking are not introduced.
Although several figures have tried to persuade Mbeki and Zuma to step aside for younger talent, powerful vested interests on both sides want to confine the race to these two. Efforts to suggest a compromise candidate are hamstrung because nobody can agree on who it should be. Cyril Ramaphosa, possibly the leading compromise candidate (and who was Mandela's choice to succeed him), says he might step up, but only if the other two stand down first. Another potential candidate, the former premier of Gauteng Province and business tycoon Tokyo Sexwale, has also been discouraged from campaigning.
Mbeki could yet decide to stand down while pushing one of his preferred candidates to challenge Zuma. His chosen successor would be either the deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the foreign minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, or the party's strategist Joel Netshitenzhe. As for Zuma: one of his motives for standing is his attempt to give himself immunity from prosecution. Any hopes that Mbeki could have persuaded the courts to lay off him disappeared as the two exchanged insults.
What South Africa now needs is leaders for a new era. The left of the ANC, including the trade union organisation Cosatu and the Communist Party (SACP), have backed Zuma. Their support helped him win 2,236 branch votes against Mbeki's 1,394 in the first round of the ANC election on 26 November. This support is puzzling, because Zuma has never been a man of the left. In fact, his appalling views on HIV/Aids (he says showering after unprotected sex can prevent infection) and on women (he said he could see by the way a woman crossed her legs that she was looking for sex) go against what both the SACP and Cosatu are supposed to stand for.
Although Zuma tells business leaders that he will continue with Mbeki's centrist economic policies, he has pro mised the left that he will steer South Africa on to a bold new redistributive path, without giving further details. For most of the post-apartheid era the left provided moral leadership within the ANC, from protesting against HIV/Aids denial and Mbeki's delusional diplomacy with Zimbabwe, to calling for a basic income for the poorest. By backing Zuma, Cosatu puts the movement that helped protect civil liberties and fight for the shrinking space for debate within the ANC at risk. Both the SACP and Cosatu have pledged to ballot their members about a formal break with the ANC if Zuma fails to be elected.
This is turning out to be the most bitter leadership campaign since the ANC's founding in 1912. The use of smear campaigns, dirty tricks and state agencies to undermine rivals has become routine. When the party was in exile, leadership elections were often fixed in secret because the ANC feared competitive contests would cause divisions during the fight against the apartheid government. That might have suited a close-knit liberation movement, but it has no place in a constitutional democracy.
Whatever the outcome - business-as-usual Mbeki or the more controversial Zuma - South Africa is hardly going to collapse. An opportunity to rejuvenate the country's democracy and breathe new life into its faltering nation-building project will have been missed, however. To paraphrase one of Mbeki's favourite poems by W B Yeats, the new leader will have to "tread softly" on the dreams of the poor. They have invested so much in the ANC, but their dreams seem about to be postponed once again.
The updated edition of William Gumede's "Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC" (Zed Books, £16.99) is out now
47m Total population
322,000 Number of blacks deemed to be “core” middle class
47 years Life expectancy for men
11 Number of official languages
$13,300 GDP per head
24% Population which is unemployed
11% Population living below
$1 a day
12% Population which is HIV-positive