This weekend sacked South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma appears in court to be formally indicted on two charges of corruption.  Mr. Zuma's sacking and the case illuminated divisions in the ruling African National Congress and its union and communist party alliance partners. It has also sparked a fierce national debate about the presidential succession and the rule of law.

Jacob Zuma was fired in June after he was implicated in a corruption trial. At the heart of the controversy around his sacking and the charges now brought against him are two things:  the future economic policies of the ruling ANC; and Mr. Zuma's burning ambition to replace President Thabo Mbeki four years from now.

There has being growing frustration among some in the ANC and its partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and South African Communist Party (SACP) at the economic policies adopted by the government and what they say is a failure on the part of ANC leaders to include them in policy making. 

While these policies have brought the country both economic stability and growth, many poor South Africans continue to live in the miserable conditions they inhabited during apartheid.

William Gumede, author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, says Mr. Zuma has become the rallying point for demands that the wealth of the country needs to be redistributed.

"They [did not] have any candidate with any kind of stature that could challenge for the presidency of the ANC and so on, and Mr. Zuma has presented himself as somebody that will take up their issues, that will try and take, when he becomes president, take the ANC back on the old mythical redistribution path," he explained.

Mr. Gumede, a lecturer in public management at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, said that by publicly allying himself to the causes of the poor, Mr. Zuma has been able to fuel perceptions that the case against him is political and designed to prevent him from succeeding Mr Mbeki as president of South Africa.

Mr. Gumede says Mr. Zuma's high profile on popular issues has also added to the perception that Mr. Mbeki, whose aloof public demeanor makes it difficult for people to warm to him, is less interested in the problems of ordinary people.  But he argues that it is Mr. Mbeki who is driving public programs that benefit the poor and whose fight against corruption is based on his belief that it steals from those who need it most.

"Mr. Mbeki is genuinly sympathetic to the poor, but in his wooden public appearances doesn't always portray that empathy to the poor and less well off," added Mr. Gumede.

Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the South African Communist party, says that Mr. Zuma's rights were violated by the public prosecutor and that this has fueled perceptions he is being persecuted on political grounds.  He says Mr. Zuma's supporters object to the prosecutor's statement two years ago that even though he had a case against Mr Zuma, he would not charge him, because it was not solid enough to stand up in court.

"There is a lot of disatisfaction within our ranks about manner in which the deputy president of the ANC has been treated by some of the organs of the justice system, and we felt that if we allow our institutions of justice in this relatively new democracy of ours, to behave in that way, these institutions can in future be used for purposes other than those that they actually set for," said Mr. Nzimande.

The case against Mr. Zuma follows the conviction earlier this year of his friend and financial advisor, Shabir Shaik, on charges of fraud and corruption.  In finding Shaik guilty, Judge Hilary Squires ruled that the relationship between Mr. Zuma and Shaik was "generally corrupt".  Judge Squires said that Shaik had facilitated an agreement with a French arms company to pay Mr. Zuma $75,000 annually for protection against prosecution and to secure future government contracts.

Witwatersrand University law professor, David Unterhalter, told VOA that the evidence presented in the Shaik case is so damning that it is difficult to understand why anyone would view the charges against Mr. Zuma as political.

"And as I have indicated there is more than sufficient evidence that emerged, that was accepted by the court, coming out of that points to Mr. Zuma," he said.  "The prosecution services have got much more than a prima facie case to launch the prosecution and I think they would possibly be acting in dereliction of their duties were they not to prosecute."

Earlier this week the prosecution mooted the possibility of a plea bargain.  And, even though this has been rejected by Mr. Zuma, some analysts say that as the case progresses he may change his mind if the deal involves a sentence does not include jail time.  Mr. Unterhalter says if this were to happen, it would be constitutionally possible for Mr. Zuma to achieve his goal of becoming president.

"My own view is that if there was a plea bargain struck and it didn't include a custodial sentence for over a 12 month period, well then the disability [in the constitution] that would otherwise attach, would not attach and he would be eligible to be [a member of parliament] and so in the line of this reasoning, eventually eligble to become president of the country," added David Unterhalter.

Even so, Mr. Gumede and other analysts argue that despite the high profile and vocal nature of Mr. Zuma's supporters, most South Africans, including the majority in the ANC and its allies, oppose a Zuma presidency.  Several recent surveys have shown that Mr. Mbeki's approval rating shot up after he fired Mr. Zuma, that most support his anti-corruption effects, and that most do not agree the charges against Mr. Zuma are political.