Mbeki faces lame-duck term after Zuma defeats him in ANC's leadership election
· Vote by party serves as repudiation of president
· Outsider was better organised among poor
Zuma, who survived a rape trial and his dismissal as the country's deputy president by Mbeki over corruption allegations, took 60% of the nearly 4,000 votes at the party's national conference in a dramatic political comeback.
His victory potentially opens the way for him to become South Africa's next president at the 2009 general election if he is not blocked by a longstanding graft investigation. The vote amounted to a repudiation of Mbeki, a man who has dedicated his life to the ANC but who was seen as increasingly authoritarian, power hungry and out of touch with ordinary South Africans.
Zuma's supporters at the conference celebrated the news of his victory by singing and dancing and waving signs saying that if Mbeki stayed it would be like Zimbabwe. Zuma's allies also won other important party leadership posts, forcing out the Mbeki camp.
Jim Mkandawire, a delegate who voted for Zuma, said before the result that it was time for a change. "We have done it, as we have been saying all along. Zuma is an unstoppable tsunami," he said. "I love Mbeki but believe that politics in the ANC is like a relay. He has to hand over the stick to another person."
Mbeki made a gesture of reconciliation in what has been a bitter and at times dirty campaign by accompanying Zuma on to the platform after his victory was announced. Mbeki was defeated by Zuma's organisation among the poor who believe they have been neglected while the ANC elite became rich, and by those disturbed at his efforts to retain control of the party even after he ceases to be the president in two years.
But Zuma's victory may prove to be the beginning of a fresh power struggle with Mbeki as the two men battle for dominance for the remainder of the president's term until the general election.
Mbeki is likely to influence whether the director of public prosecutions charges Zuma for allegedly accepting substantial bribes from a French weapons company.
Zuma's financial adviser has already been jailed for funnelling him the payments.
Zuma's camp has accused Mbeki of pursuing the graft investigation as a political vendetta and has warned that it might use the ANC's domination of parliament to force an early general election if charges are brought.
Meanwhile, Mbeki can be expected to resist attempts by Zuma and the new ANC leadership to dictate government policy for the remaining 17 months of his term.
Despite the public splits in the ruling party, some senior ANC officials said the vote was a victory for broader South African democracy because it would remind future presidents that they do not wield power without accountability in a political system so dominated by one party.
Mac Maharaj, who served as transport minister in Mbeki's cabinet but has become a critic of the president, said the vote would begin to reverse the effect of a leader who stifled debate by portraying critics as enemies of the people.
"My perception is that the democratic debate in South Africa began to close down in the public space and the ANC, and that in a democracy where the ANC is so crucial it is important that the debate is opened up. That is happening now," he said.
"It's a message that came from on the ground. They're saying there is that disconnect. I think it's a very positive thing for democracy that we're going through this process."
The ANC secretary general, Kgalema Motlanthe, sought to defuse concerns about the implications of a Zuma win.
The Mbeki camp has warned that Zuma would shift economic policy to the left, reverse years of growth and job creation, and drive away foreign investors.
But Motlanthe said policy is decided by the party not one man. "Policy will not change in the economic area where investors are interested. There are basic economic policies that will not change ..." he said.
Maharaj said Zuma was likely to move away from centralising power and would be more responsive to the party and its allies in the trade unions. "He has courted and been courted by all sides. If he has made a promise it is only that he will conduct matters in a way that is more consultative and embracing," he said. A Johannesburg newspaper, the Times, reported yesterday that Mbeki rejected advice he got from ANC officials to withdraw from the race to avoid defeat. But Mbeki, true to his style, fought to the end.