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South African Ruling Party Leader Visits US Officials

The leader of South Africa's ruling party, Jacob Zuma, is in the United States this week. He is expected to visit with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other US officials.

Zuma arrives at a time when the ANC faces a revolt, as some members form a breakaway party. The visit also follows a recent move by Zuma supporters to force Thabo Mbeki to step down as the country's president, just a few months before the end of his term.

Among those following developments is South African journalist Mark Gevisser, author of a soon-to-be-published book, A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream. From Johannesburg, he spoke to VOA English to Africa Service Joe De Capua about why Jacob Zuma is visiting the United States.

"My understanding is that this visit was planned a good few months ago and is part of Jacob Zuma's campaign to 'reassure markets' that there's not going to be a significant policy change, particularly around economic policy, once Zuma becomes president. And the question to why the United States would meet Jacob Zuma is because even though there is a lot of contention on the ground in South Africa, Jacob Zuma is the democratically elected president of the ANC and in that position he will almost without doubt be the next president of South Africa. And given South Africa's strategic role on the continent, there is a special relationship with the United States," he says.

Nevertheless, Zuma may still face a corruption trial stemming from a large South African arms deal. Currently, the trial is on hold due to a legal technicality and it's unclear whether prosecutors will re-file charges against him.

"There's nothing in the South African constitution which prevents somebody who is standing trial from being the head of state. So, for as long as Jacob Zuma is not found guilty, he may be head of state. And the ANC has made it clear, for better or for worse, that even if he is re-charged, until such time as he is found guilty, he is going to be presumed innocent and he will be able to be the president of the country," he says.

Gevisser says that the ANC is no longer the "fabled party of Nelson Mandela." He explains, "The South African liberation movement carried, I think, the dreams and aspirations, not only of all South Africans and all Africans, but during the years of the anti-apartheid struggle of many people all over the world. It was the great moral cause of the late 20th Century. And Nelson Mandela was considered a saint, an icon, a hero, who could do no wrong. And I think what's happened in South African politics is a kind of normalization, a realization that this isn't some kind of fabled rainbow nation. That South Africa's not the world's greatest fairy tale, but is just another difficult, struggling developing nation with leaders who are not saints or demagogues, but are flawed and self-interested human beings."

Under Zuma's leadership of the ANC, supporters of Thabo Mbeki and others recently broke away to begin forming a new political party. Asked whether that's good or bad for South Africa, Gevisser says, "I think it's a mixed blessing. It's good because I think the graveyard of African democracies have been these de facto one-party states. And up to this point, there has not been a significant and viable black-led opposition to the ANC. Now for the first time, because of this breakaway faction, there will be a significant and viable opposition to the ANC. I think what we need to be careful of, though, is that there's no indication yet that the people leading this party are doing so because they have any kind of policy differences from the ANC. It seems far more to be about factionalism and a group of people who've been dumped and therefore want to find their way back into the system. And that can lead to a kind of faction fighting on the ground, which might be quite destabilizing."

He says when Thabo Mbeki was first-elected president, he visited George W. Bush, who was then the governor of the state of Texas. The visit resulted in Mbeki later becoming the Bush administration's "point man" in Africa. Gevisser sees no such role for Jacob Zuma. "Whatever criticisms there were of Thabo Mbeki, he was a life-long diplomat who spent most of his life sort of forging connections, particularly with the leadership of the G8 countries, and perhaps dedicated too much time to keeping those relationships going, often, it was said critically, at the expense of domestic relations. Jacob Zuma is going to be much more focused domestically," he says.

Nevertheless, he says it's important for Zuma to assure US officials that South African can remain a "dependable ally."