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South Africa heads into uncertainty with Zuma victory

POLOKWANE, South Africa (Reuters) - Left-wing populist Jacob Zuma has won the leadership of South Africa’s ruling ANC, lining him up for the presidency of the country but creating deep uncertainty about his policies.

Former ANC President and South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki (L) walks behind newly elected ANC President Jacob Zuma during the third day of a leadership conference in Polokwane, December 18,2007. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Because the African National Congress dominates politics, Zuma is almost certain to become head of state when his ousted ANC rival, Thabo Mbeki, has to step down as president in 2009.

But Zuma’s victory on Tuesday raises the question of whether Mbeki will become a lame duck president, paralyzing decision making because the country’s two most powerful posts will be split between rivals.

There are fears that this could dangerously delay action to deal with the AIDS crisis, one of the world’s worst crime rates and poverty that still blights the lives of millions of poor blacks more than a decade after the end of apartheid.

Zuma could also face revived corruption charges in an arms scandal, raising the possibility that he could be jailed before he succeeds to the presidency.

“We can anticipate this conflict extending over the next two years. It is going to be particularly precarious when Jacob Zuma gets charged, if he does get charged over the corruption scandal,” said political analyst Adam Habib.

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But officials, speaking amid loud rejoicing by Zuma supporters at a party conference in this northern town, brushed aside fears of paralysis or a populist lurch to the left.

Business tycoon Tokyo Sexwale, a Zuma supporter once seen as a possible compromise candidate in the ANC race, said:

“It argues well, it is always very important for leadership of any part of the world to renew itself and here it has been done without a single tank inside, without a single bomb exploding and it shows maturity.”

Zuma may have to work harder to win over some jittery investors, who fear his leftist union allies will push him away from the centrist policies of Mbeki that have spurred South Africa’s longest period of growth.

The 65-year-old Zuma, an ethnic Zulu, has made a remarkable comeback after setbacks that would have buried most politicians.

He was acquitted of raping an HIV-positive family friend in 2006, but the corruption allegations still hang over him after prosecutors said this month that they had new evidence.

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In a clean sweep for Zuma, the ANC conference voted his allies onto all five other positions on the party leadership, although his supporters lack the economic expertise and experience that have made Mbeki popular with investors.

Zuma is a total contrast to the aloof and intellectual Mbeki, overflowing with charisma and a common touch.

He was able to capitalize on growing frustrations with Mbeki, who critics say has become autocratic and unapproachable and has neglected the ANC’s main constituency among the poor.

Mbeki was handed the party leadership by Nelson Mandela in 1997 and succeeded him as head of state in 1999. After a decade of dominance he now has no official ANC position.

Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Barry Moody