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South Africa’s new ANC leader confronts crisis of expectation from poor and leftist backers

    POLOKWANE, South Africa — The newly elected leader of South Africa’s ruling party rose to power on the backs of trade unionists, communists and the poor. The challenge now is to satisfy his supporters without sacrificing the nation’s economy.
    Cynthia Tokwe, a maid in Cape Town, was typical of supporters of Jacob Zuma, the son of a maid. ‘‘He understands poverty,’’ she said. ‘‘He understands us.’’
    Zuma, whose political career has survived sex and corruption scandals, routed President Thabo Mbeki to win the presidency of the African National Congress at a divisive party convention Tuesday. Zuma loyalists also won all other top party posts.
    This puts Zuma on track to become the next president of South Africa in 2009, when the constitution requires Mbeki to step down — but also presents him with a weighty agenda of priorities drawn up by the people who ensured his success.
    Delen Ryn, a maid from north-central South Africa, said she wanted Zuma to focus on the economy, which she saw as the key to helping with ‘‘AIDS and jobs, because that is what most of the people are complaining about.’’
    Frans Baleni, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, said Zuma and his team ‘‘have a huge responsibility to mend the ANC, tackle the scourge of unemployment, poverty, inequality, HIV/AIDS and many others.’’
    Zuma has been careful to make no promises and his first official pronouncements as ANC president, expected Thursday, are much anticipated, by both South Africans and investors in Africa’s largest economy.
    The ANC wields unmatched power in South Africa, governing with little opposition since Nelson Mandela won the first post-apartheid election in 1994. But many in this population of 48 million have not enjoyed the fruits of black majority rule and have become disenchanted.
    The South African Institute of Race Relations recently released a study showing absolute poverty in South Africa has doubled since the ANC took power. Some 25 million South Africans live far below the poverty line and unemployment, which feeds crime and poverty, has grown to 27 percent or 40 percent, depending on whom you talk to. In addition, the country has the world’s highest number of AIDS victims and one of the highest rates of murder and rape.
    Zuma’s election ‘‘is extremely important for ... every South African who wants fundamental change,’’ said Zwelinzima Vavi, secretary-general of Zuma’s most powerful ally, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, or COSATU.
    While Vavi acknowledged Zuma was unlikely to shift ANC policies radically, he noted that even before Zuma’s election, there had been a greater focus on unemployment and poverty and it was ‘‘not because of new leadership but because the ANC membership has demanded greater emphasis on those issues.’’
    The deputy general secretary of the South African Communist Party, legislator Jeremy Cronin, said that although he did not expect dramatic change, ‘‘we see emerging inside the ANC a very significant shift to the left.’’ The party’s national chairman was elected to the ANC governing council on Zuma’s slate Tuesday.
    COSATU and the Communist Party have called for the nationalization of basic industries and moving faster to redistribute land to the poor.
    Such demands from Zuma’s allies make business leaders fearful despite Zuma’s assurances that he plans no radical change from the more conservative policies espoused by Mbeki, which produced an economic boom and created a small black elite, but whose benefits have not trickled down.
    Zuma’s supporters say there would be a different emphasis, but not a policy overhaul.
    ‘‘I think there won’t be much change, only that he will concentrate more on the youth and the poor, who are those who suffer most from AIDS and unemployment,’’ said Honoured Shobede, a delegate at the conference who is a municipal administrator.
    The South African rand remained steady Wednesday. Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services analyst Farouk Soussa attributed that to a sense the ANC would adhere to ‘‘prudent’’ market-oriented policies ‘‘aimed at alleviating socio-economic strains through faster growth.’’
    Ibrahim Fakir, an analyst at the independent Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, said Zuma ‘‘will find it very difficult to keep his promise to the poor because South Africa does not have the environment for rapid economic growth and job creation.’’
    What is needed, according to Marian Tupy of the Cato Institute in Washington D.C., is labor reform giving the private sector freedom to hire and fire, a liberalization that would be strongly opposed by trade unions.
    ‘‘Zuma will find (job creation) very difficult to do because he is beholden to COSATU for the presidency,’’ Tupy said.
    Political analyst Adam Habib of the University of Johannesburg argued Mbeki’s government already has moved toward greater investment in health and social welfare, and that Zuma has only so much freedom to meet the demands of those who supported him.
    ‘‘Firstly, you pay back those that you can in the framework of the policy agendas that are feasible,’’ Habib said. ‘‘Then, like all good politicians, you forget about the others. That is what Mbeki did and that will happen if Jacob Zuma were to become president.
    Soon, he said, Zuma would confront ‘‘the same dilemmas, the same contradictions.’’
    ———
    Associated Press writers Celean Jacobson in Polokwane and Clare Nullis in Cape Town contributed to this report.

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