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African National Congress Prepares for Leadership Vote

South Africa's ruling party has delayed choosing its new leader, as tensions run high between supporters of President Thabo Mbeki and party deputy Jacob Zuma. The 4,000 delegates to the African National Congress conference were expected to elect a party president and other top officials Monday. But by late in the afternoon there was no word on when the voting will start.

The Mbeki and Zuma camps are trying to resolve a dispute over whether votes should be counted manually or electronically. ANC leaders have appointed a steering committee to settle the issue.

President Thabo Mbeki and the organization's deputy leader, Jacob Zuma, have been in a bitter contest for the top post , which, if Zuma wins, places him in a strong position to become president of the country in 2009. In Polokwane, Limpopo Province, VOA's Delia Robertson profiles the two men.

Apart from their age, 65, anyone looking for similarities in President Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma would be hard-pressed to find any. Even on the surface, they are quite different.

Mr. Mbeki is a short man, with a quiet -- even shy - demeanor. However, an underlying intensity is evident, even on casual acquaintance. Zuma is a large man with a large personality and a ready smile on his lips that rarely reaches his dark, veiled eyes.

Their entry into politics was different, too. Mr. Mbeki comes from the so-called struggle elite -- a family steeped in the traditions of the African National Congress and anti-apartheid politics. Zuma was introduced to politics by a relative in the trade union movement when he was in his teens and joined the ANC at age 17.

During apartheid, the Mbeki family worked determinedly to overcome the limitations imposed by that system. His father, Govan Mbeki, was a university graduate and his son received a relatively privileged upbringing. He attended school regularly and ultimately attained a masters degree in economics at the University of Sussex in England.

Zuma, on the other hand, lost his father during World War II. His mother resorted to domestic employment to keep the family together. For Zuma, there was no chance to acquire an education. By age 15, he was doing odd jobs to supplement his mother's income.

After the 1962 arrest of many ANC leaders at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg, the organization ordered a number of other leaders, including Thabo Mbeki, abroad to set up an opposition-in-exile.

After completing his studies, he was involved in the organization in ever more senior positions, eventually becoming head of international relations. In this capacity, alongside then-ANC president Oliver Tambo, Mr. Mbeki worked to raise and change the profile of the anti-apartheid struggle in the international community.

Mark Gevisser, Mr. Mbeki's biographer, says the role he played was pivotal.

"To the extent that we owe a debt of gratitude to Mbeki, I think he is the man who got the West to see that the ANC was not a terrorist organization but a liberation movement, and he is the man who got white South Africans to see that they could trust black people in leading this country," said Gevisser. "Unbelievable job, that he did."

On his return from exile in 1990, Mr. Mbeki became central to the negotiations that ended apartheid and, in 1994, was chosen by Nelson Mandela to be his deputy president. During this period, until he became South African president in 1999, Mr. Mbeki was largely responsible for the day-to-day running of the country. Many attribute him with setting South Africa on an economic path that has seen the country move from decades of negative growth to the longest period of sustained economic growth in over 40 years.

Sometimes called "the philosopher king," Mr. Mbeki has a deeply passionate vision for South Africa -- a country that has broken out of the cycle of poverty, where people will be able to live lives of dignity and opportunity. Often dubbed the Mbeki-project, author Gevisser says it is also a dream that Mr. Mbeki may be forced to defer when he leaves office.

"Is he going to run out of time? I think that he fears that he is, and I think that is one of the reasons why he wants to remain in power, if not in the office of the [South Africa] presidency, because he fears his project is not yet done," he said.

As president, Mr. Mbeki has also been severely criticized on several issues -- most particularly on his handling of HIV / AIDS. For some time, he publicly questioned the causal link between HIV and AIDS. Critics say that, as a consequence, the government was very slow to act to combat the disease and treat those ill with AIDS.

Some 5.5 million South Africans are HIV-positive, the highest number in the world. Now, South Africa has a widely accepted prevention and treatment plan in place, but Mr. Mbeki's critics say it should have been accomplished a lot sooner.

Given the current bitterness between Mr. Mbeki and Zuma, it now seems ironic that, for most of their acquaintance, they were close comrades. They worked together after Zuma went into exile in 1975 and in 1999, Mr. Mbeki selected Zuma to serve as deputy president of South Africa.

It seems to have been the start of the collapse of their relationship, which soon showed public signs of strain. In 2005, following the conviction of Zuma's financial advisor on corruption charges in which he was implicated, Mr. Mbeki fired him as deputy president of the country.

Before the first democratic elections in 1994 and for some time afterwards, Zuma, an ethnic-Zulu, was tasked with bringing peace to KwaZulu-Natal, where some 20,000 people were killed in a bloody battle for power between the ANC and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party. Many say his role in ending that conflict was key.

As deputy president of South Africa, he played important foreign relations roles in Africa. He took over from former President Nelson Mandela as facilitator in the Burundi peace process and often filled in for Mr. Mbeki in other peace initiatives on the continent.

Since he was fired, Zuma has embarked on a well-publicized and well-funded campaign to become president of the ANC and, ultimately, president of South Africa.

He traveled the country, using his considerable charm to win support in ANC branches across the country. He entrenched his support in the ANC Youth League and the party's alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and South African Communist Party.

Some analysts say that Zuma's rise in popularity has much to do with dissatisfaction with Mr. Mbeki, who is often viewed as distant and whose economic policies are anathema to the party's two alliance partners. They say these policies have caused job losses and have not helped the poor.

Zuma says there will be no major shifts in policy, if he becomes president of South Africa, causing some to wonder why the SACP and COSATU support him. Blade Ndzimande, general secretary of the SACP, says it is about style.

"So it is a question of style, his outlook, the manner in which he has actually related to allies, such as then there is this thing that with Jacob Zuma there is likely to be more space for meaningful engagement and listening to each other. Which is important," he said.

Since he was fired in 2005, Zuma was also charged and acquitted on allegations of rape. As soon as that case ended, in 2006, Zuma made it clear in a nationally broadcast news conference that he his campaign to become president of South Africa remained on track.

"The case is over, and therefore, I am back," said Zuma. "I took a decision which was accepted by the ANC for the duration of the case. The case is over. So there is more than a question of style, his outlook, the manor of how he related to allies, with Zuma there is likely to be more space for engagement and listening to each other, which is important."

Corruption charges flowing from Zuma's relationship with his former financial advisor and others may soon be reinstated and still hang over his head.