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Why South Africa is at a political crossroads

The ANC party that has governed South Africa since Mandela defeated apartheid is meeting to choose a new leader amid warnings its future is under threat.

It is an important moment for the party – and the country. It is struggling with unemployment of nearly 30%, a dwindling economy where 55% are below the poverty line, and political scandal.

:: What’s happening?

Thousands of delegates from the ANC (African National Congress) are gathering outside Johannesburg for a five-day conference where they will vote for a new leader to replace President Jacob Zuma.

:: Why is it important?

The new ANC leader is likely to become South Africa’s next president.

But they badly need to repair the party’s reputation: it has been tarnished by scandal and corruption allegations against President Zuma and its popularity is falling.

The ANC has ruled South Africa since Nelson Mandela's historic rise to power in 1994
The ANC has ruled South Africa since Nelson Mandela’s historic rise to power in 1994

For the first time, the 105-year-old party collected under 60% of the votes in last year’s municipal elections.

President Zuma, 75, has weathered no-confidence votes in parliament but his term is ending in 2019 and opening the conference he admitted the party could “implode” and stood at a crossroads.

He called on delegates “to renew our movement and to restore its timeless values” and warned that “petty squabbles” had distracted the ANC.

If the party cannot restore public trust and heal internal divisions it could split into rival factions, and possibly have to form a coalition with other parties.

Thousands of delegates have gathered to choose their new leader
Thousands of delegates have gathered to choose their new leader

That would be unprecedented for a party that has been in charge since the historic democratic elections that ended white-minority rule in 1994 and started Nelson Mandela’s presidency.

:: What are the scandals about?

Mr Zuma has been accused of corrupt dealings with the wealthy Gupta family, who emigrated to South Africa from India in 1993 and started a range of businesses.

In one case, a plane carrying Gupta family members to a wedding in 2013 was allowed to land at an air base near Pretoria and hundreds of guests given a police escort.

Anti-Zuma protesters march ahead of the vote of no confidence against President Jacob Zuma
Mr Zuma has survived protests and no-confidence votes
Zuma protest
The President has denied the corruption claims

The most serious allegations are that the President allegedly granted the Guptas influence over cabinet appointments and that the family used their friendship with Mr Zuma to win government contracts.

South Africa’s High Court has ordered the President to set up a judicial inquiry into an official report, entitled ‘State of Capture’, which looked at the claims.

The Guptas and President Zuma have denied all wrongdoing, with the South African leader suggesting the claims are politically motivated.

Mr Zuma’s mansion has also got him into hot water.

A public prosecutor’s report found he used public money to help do up the private residence with non security-related improvements; including a cattle enclosure, amphitheatre, visitor centre, chicken run and swimming pool.

Mr Zuma claimed the pool was in fact a fire-fighting reservoir.

It took a stinging rebuke from South Africa’s constitutional court to force him to pay back the funds.

:: Who are the favourites to replace him as ANC leader?

The front runners are ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and President Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – and the vote is expected to be close.

Cyril Ramaphosa (centre) could end up being South Africa's next president
Cyril Ramaphosa (centre) could end up being South Africa’s next president
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is the other favourite to take over at the ANC
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is the other favourite to take over at the ANC

Mr Ramaphosa, 65, is a former union leader and now one of South Africa’s richest businessmen. He is also a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle and helped the transition to democracy.

But many South Africans remember him as a board member at the Lonmin mine when police shot dead 34 striking workers in 2012.

He has set himself up as a reform candidate and promised to cut down on corruption.

Ms Dlamini-Zuma, 68, is a doctor and a former government minister for health and foreign affairs.

Also an activist during the apartheid years, she went on to become the first female leader of the African Union Commission.

She is promising “radical economic transformation” but some South Africans are worried that she may still be influenced by her ex-husband and even shield him from possible future prosecution.

:: When does South Africa vote for a new leader?

Voters go to the polls in 2019.

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