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South Africa's Zuma primed for second rise

A corruption case against former deputy president Jacob Zuma was dropped this week, clearing his path to the top.

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He's a charming former rebel intelligence chief and a working class hero for the ideological left. He's a 64-year-old power broker for his ethnic Zulu tribe, and a man who has recently survived a crushing one-two punch of rape charges and a corruption trial.

Meet Jacob Zuma: He may be the next president of South Africa.

Few politicians would be able to appreciate the turnaround of fortune in Mr. Zuma's climb to power within the African National Congress, the largest party in South Africa, which has consistently held power since the end of apartheid in 1994. But with a court decision this week to postpone indefinitely a corruption trial against Zuma, South Africa's most controversial black leader has become the odds-on favorite to succeed President Thabo Mbeki, should Mr. Mbeki step down from his post, as expected, at an ANC leadership conference next year.

"Jacob Zuma is in a stronger position than he was in yesterday," says Aubrey Matshiqi, a former ANC member and government spokesman and now a senior analyst at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. "If the damage to his reputation does not extend to the rank and file (of the ANC), then he will emerge as the strongest candidate and most likely be elected president of the ANC in 2007," and the party's probable candidate for the president of the country in 2009.

Few major changes expected

With South Africa's booming economy in the balance, any transfer of power here is bound to gain international attention. Markets responded quickly to the news of Zuma's postponed trial, and the rand dropped sharply in value, from 7.3 to 7.4 to the US dollar. Yet while political analysts expect Zuma's rising political fortunes to set off a volatile leadership struggle over the next year, few expect any major changes in economic or social policies, even if South Africa's leading advocate of the political left comes to power.

"If you read the local media, you'd get the impression that [Zuma's leadership] would bring Zimbabwe in 24 hours," says Steven Friedman, a research associate at the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa, a think tank in Johannesburg. "But you've got to remember that the coalition behind Zuma is very diverse," with leftist trade unions and ethnic Zulus who would have very different agendas.

"I don't think who wins is the issue," says Mr. Friedman. "I think the question is how the battle is fought."

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