Eighteen years after Nelson Mandela helped defeat apartheid, some of his political heirs have descended into murder, vote-buying and gun-wielding intimidation tactics.
This was the disturbing message on Sunday from President Jacob Zuma as he opened a key meeting of the African National Congress, the party that has ruled South Africa since the liberation from apartheid in 1994.
“We have experienced the shocking occurrences where armed comrades disrupt ANC meetings,” Mr. Zuma said in his speech. “We condemn the use of violence, and strongly condemn the killings of ANC leaders.”
Wealthy people are using money to buy votes, turning ANC members into “commodities,” he said.
He was alluding to scandals that have shaken the party in recent weeks and months: dozens of politically-related murders, allegations that the votes of delegates were bought, and incidents of gun-toting party members bursting into meetings and threatening to shoot Mr. Zuma’s opponents.
What he failed to mention, however, was that the political violence and corruption has largely benefited his own campaign for a second term. And the mood on the convention floor on Sunday was clear to everyone: Mr. Zuma has the overwhelming support of the ANC delegates, paving his way for another five-year term in the 2014 national election.
His supporters sang, danced, cheered and roared throughout the opening day, dominating the huge tent at the University of the Free State where the 4,500 delegates have gathered for the first ANC elective conference in five years.
Supporters of his challenger, deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, were much less numerous and remained subdued and almost silent for most of the day.
Mr. Motlanthe is increasingly likely to be pushed aside and replaced by wealthy businessman Cyril Ramaphosa. Several reports on Sunday said Mr. Ramaphosa has agreed to run for deputy president. He is expected to gain the support of Mr. Zuma’s backers, leaving him well-positioned to succeed Mr. Zuma as head of the ruling party by 2017.
Even as Mr. Ramaphosa looks set to become the ANC’s heir apparent, another key veteran is quitting the party’s national executive. Trevor Manuel, who served as finance minister for 13 years and was widely respected for stabilizing South Africa’s financial reputation when the ANC took power, announced on the weekend that he is leaving the executive. He was an ally of Mr. Mandela’s chosen successor, Thabo Mbeki, who was toppled from power by Mr. Zuma in an internal revolt at the last ANC elective conference in 2007.
While the ANC gathers in Bloemfontein to settle its internal feuds, the conference has been overshadowed by the continuing illness of Mr. Mandela, the beloved 94-year-old liberation hero who became South Africa’s first democratic president.
Mr. Mandela is entering his 10th day in hospital in Pretoria, where he has been treated for a lung infection and gallstones. The ANC government has maintained heavy secrecy over Mr. Mandela’s hospital treatment, refusing even to disclose the name of the hospital.
Mr. Zuma opened his speech on Sunday by leading the delegates in a powerful and solemn song of tribute to Mr. Mandela. “The journey is long,” they sang. “Mandela told his followers that we’ll meet on freedom day.”