Mandela Recovering As ANC Chooses New Leader

Alex Crawford, Special Correspondent, in Johnnesburg
Mandela Recovering As ANC Chooses New Leader

Nelson Mandela is spending his ninth day in hospital, recovering from a lung infection and gallstones, while the party he once headed meets amid widespread squabbling over who should be their next head.

There is heavy security around the conference in Bloemfontein which meets every five years. It has drawn more than 4,000 delegates to the city, which is also known by its African name, Mangaung.

Whoever wins the election as African National Congress (ANC) leader is almost certainly going to be the next president of the country.

Eighteen years after their first democratic election, the ANC is still overwhelmingly dominant in South African politics.

The sitting president, Jacob Zuma, who is known to dance and sing in public, faces a challenge from his quiet, unassuming deputy Kgalema Motlanthe. His challenge is seen as evidence of very obvious discontent right at the heart of the ANC hierarchy.

The run-up to Mangaung has seen shootings and threats towards local ANC officials and a flurry of accusations that the voting figures were being manipulated in Mr Zuma's favour.

The 70-year-old president remains the hot favourite and commands a lot of influence amongst the Zulu population - the largest ethnic group in the country.

But there is huge discontent and unease over his leadership, and the party in general, elsewhere in the country.

A week before the conference, a group of the country's most influential religious leaders wrote a letter to the party accusing it of "moral decay".

Much of the South African media has been exorcised over reports that Mr Zuma has spent more than 200m rand (about £15m) on upgrading his homestead in Kwazulu Natal.

At the same time, his government was bulldozing homes in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg, which had been apparently illegally built.

This at a time when South Africa has seen his credit rating downgraded and there is still much industrial unrest over poor wages and conditions.

For many black people, life post-apartheid may have meant getting the vote, but very little access to the country's wealth.

American civil rights activist Rev Jesse Jackson told me at the ANC's centenary celebrations in Bloemfontein at the start of the year he believed most people in South Africa were enduring an "economic apartheid".

Although there is a growing black middle class, the gap between rich and poor in the country is widening too - to such an extent that South Africa is considered one of the most unequal societies in the world.

Mr Zuma is the man who is drawing most of the ire about this inequality. He is a man with little or no formal education and apparently taught himself to write while cattle herding as a boy.

He has sterling ANC credentials having served time in prison during the fight against the country's racial segregation laws known as apartheid.

He rose through the party ranks and, apart from heading the party's intelligence branch, he went on to be deputy president but was fired by the then president, Thabo Mbeki, after being implicated in a corruption scandal involving an arms deal.

He is a polygamist who has been married six times and currently has four wives. He has 21 children but admitted in 2010 that he had fathered a child out of wedlock.

He stood trial accused of raping a family friend and told the court before being acquitted in 2006 that he had unprotected sex with the woman who was HIV-positive but had taken a shower believing it would protect him from Aids.

It was Mr Zuma and his poor stewardship of the government and industry which was largely blamed by the public, at the time at least, for the mining massacre at Marikana in August this year when police gunned down 34 striking miners outside the Lonmin plant.

It was the ANC and Mr Zuma as its head who was largely seen as responsible for causing so much discontent. The handling of the tragedy led to a number of other strikes across different sectors as workers fought for better wages and conditions.

It is in this atmosphere that the ANC elective conference is taking place - and despite the expectation that Mr Zuma will be re-elected, his return to leadership is not expected to see the dissolution of the mountain of problems the country is facing.