"THE African National Congress should not choose someone of whom most of us would be ashamed," said Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has a fair claim to being South Africa's living conscience.
But on Tuesday the ANC did choose Jacob Zuma as the new party leader, giving him an almost unbeatable advantage in the race to become the country's next president.
The party conference was a raucous affair, with Zuma's supporters heckling and booing President Thabo Mbeki. The law only allows Mbeki two terms in the presidency, and he wanted to hold on to the ANC leadership as a way of exerting influence over the choice of the next president after he steps down in 2009.
But "most of us", or at least most of the 4,000 ANC delegates, were not at all ashamed of choosing Zuma, who won the leadership with a 60 percent majority.
Not only that, but Zuma's supporters made a clean sweep of all five other senior positions in the ANC leadership. Unless he dies or is convicted of some crime between now and 2009, he will be the ANC's candidate for the presidency -- and since the ANC still wins national elections almost automatically, he is very likely to be President Zuma eighteen months from now. How bad would that be?
Thabo Mbeki thinks it would be very bad. In his speech to the conference he referred repeatedly to "ethical leadership," which was code for "not Jacob Zuma." The two men were once close political allies despite the huge contrast between their backgrounds: Mbeki the austere intellectual with a master's degree in economics, Zuma the charismatic demagogue with no formal education. But when Zuma was charged with corruption two years ago Mbeki dismissed him as deputy president.
The corruption charges were dismissed when a court ruled that documents seized during a raid by the National Prosecuting Authority on Zuma's office and home could not be used against him because the search warrant was defective. He also escaped conviction in a rape case brought against him by the daughter of an old ANC comrade-in-arms who had been staying in his home. And he began his campaign for the leadership of the ANC, the surest route to the presidency itself.
He has won precisely because of what Mbeki sees as his flaws. The rank-and-file membership of the ANC (and many other South Africans, especially among the poor black majority) have grown weary of Mbeki's distant, almost other-worldly style of leadership, whereas Zuma sings and dances and wears traditional costumes and is definitely one of the boys.
They are also sick of an economy that grows at five percent, but does not seem to spread the prosperity beyond the new black middle class to the deprived millions who still live in squalor. They take Zuma's warm, affable personality as evidence that he cares more about the poor. And they think that backing Zuma, whatever his faults, is the best way of ensuring that Mbeki really does leave power.
On the other hand, what Mbeki, the South African middle class of all colours, and foreign investors all see in Zuma is a classic African "big man"-style leader in the making. He is not a monster, but he has little respect for the law. His populist instincts would sabotage South Africa's economic growth, and his dependence on better-educated advisers and old cronies would open the door to massive corruption.
It is not just white South Africans who fear that the miracle of the past fifteen years is very vulnerable, and that the nation could all too easily go the way of so many other African countries if the wrong people get into power. For Mbeki, for Tutu, and one suspects even for Nelson Mandela (who chose Mbeki as his successor, after all), Zuma is the man who could wreck the dream. This may be unfair to Zuma, but he will almost certainly become president in eighteen months' time unless the law or mortality intervenes. The law is starting to intervene again.
The Supreme Court has just declared the documents seized from Zuma admissible in court, and prosecutors have submitted an affidavit alleging that Zuma received 4 million rand (about $550,000) from a French arms company while he was deputy president. His former financial adviser is already serving a 15-year prison sentence for soliciting a bribe from that company in exchange for Zuma's support, and if he cannot get those documents ruled out of court again he is in big trouble.
Mortality is an imponderable, of course, and Zuma is only 65. But it was striking that at his rape trial he freely admitted that he had unprotected sex with his accuser, whom he knew to be HIV-positive. He said he took a shower afterwards to avoid infection, which suggests that he is either very stupid - or that he has nothing more to fear from HIV-positive partners.
Odds are that nothing will go wrong, however. Zuma will probably become the president of South Africa in 2009, and then we will see if the fears about him are justified or not. But here's one positive aspect of the situation: last Tuesday was the first time in 58 years that the ANC has chosen its leader by an open vote.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.