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How South Africa can alter Africa

A political upset in the ruling party shows the country entering a new postapartheid phase.

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Will Africa's flagship nation, South Africa, become a Zimbabwe, its economy and laws run aground by a "big man" leader? That's the question being asked in the wake of a political upset there. Also relevant are parallels to a deeply divided Kenya, where ethnic violence has erupted over a contested election.

The comparisons spring from last month's battle for leadership of South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress.

A populist, Jacob Zuma, decisively toppled President Thabo Mbeki for ANC leader and is expected to easily win the 2009 presidential election, if he is not convicted on corruption charges first. Brows furrowed among the elite, however, at the thought of Mr. Zuma, professed socialist, being in control of the continent's anchor economy. South Africa is experiencing its most robust prosperity since World War II, with the economy expanding at an annual average rate of 5.2 percent over the last three years.

But the elite's concern may be overblown. The ANC upset demonstrated progress toward political plurality, not an about-face toward autocracy, as occurred in neighboring Zimbabwe. The ANC election – its first open ballot in nearly 60 years – revealed an ability to change leaders peaceably, if raucously.

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