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Under fire for his cozy relations with dictators and his mishandling of racial conflicts at home, South African President Jacob Zuma is facing a new crisis over his leadership.

The revelation that Mr. Zuma accepted a phone call this week from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi – and apparently failed to tell him to step down – has sparked the latest controversy over his leadership style, which many criticize as weak and indecisive.

Mr. Zuma is also under attack for his faltering diplomatic efforts in Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe, where he seems to prefer power-sharing arrangements that allow autocrats to remain in office after losing elections. He is accused of squandering the moral stature that South Africa gained after its peaceful liberation from apartheid in the 1990s.

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At home, meanwhile, a nasty war with racial overtones has erupted between key factions in his ruling African National Congress. One of his most respected cabinet ministers, Trevor Manuel, is complaining of racism at the "highest echelons" of Mr. Zuma's government, while a government spokesman has ignited a furor by suggesting that mixed-race people (known officially in South Africa as "coloured") should disperse from their traditional population base around Cape Town.

Mr. Manuel, the former veteran finance minister who remains the most senior coloured politician in the Zuma cabinet, issued a blistering letter condemning the government's official spokesman, Jimmy Manyi, who had suggested that the coloured population is in "over-supply" in the Cape regions.

Mr. Zuma is now under pressure to fire Mr. Manuel for breaking government ranks by attacking the spokesman in such a harsh and public manner. But if he does so, he would give a huge victory to the "Africanist" faction in his government, which favours greater political and economic power for the emerging black middle class, and he would badly damage his party's chances of winning coloured votes in the local elections in May.

Mr. Zuma was in Addis Ababa on Thursday for meetings of the African Union to discuss the crises in Libya and Ivory Coast. His own role in both crises is facing growing scrutiny and criticism.

His office was clearly unprepared for the uproar over his phone conversation with Col. Gadhafi, which was first reported on Libyan television on Wednesday. According to Libyan TV, the South African President expressed sympathy to Col. Gadhafi and complained of a "conspiracy" against Libya.

South Africa's opposition MPs recalled how Mr. Zuma had travelled to Libya in 2006 to meet Col. Gadhafi, reportedly to solicit funds for his defence against rape charges that he was facing at the time. The MPs demanded that Mr. Zuma reveal what was said in his latest conversation with the Libyan strongman.

At first, Mr. Zuma's office refused to give any explanation, saying it "will not be drawn into rumours and distortions of the conversation." But this fuelled even more controversy and curiosity. The opposition Democratic Alliance said Mr. Zuma had made a "terrible misjudgment" by talking to Col. Gadhafi and allowing the Libyan media to use their conversation for propaganda purposes. "His position now appears severely compromised," MP Athol Trollip said.

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A day later, the President's office was still scrambling for damage control. Finally, his officials gave their first details of the phone conversation, saying that Mr. Zuma had used the conversation to demand that Col. Gadhafi must immediately stop the violence and human-rights abuses against civilians. But this failed to appease the critics, who noted that Mr. Zuma has been relatively silent on the Libyan crisis and has refused to join the international sanctions against the Gadhafi regime.

In the Ivory Coast crisis, Mr. Zuma is one of five members of an African Union committee that is struggling to resolve the increasingly bloody stalemate. But unlike the United Nations and most West African nations, he has refused to accept that opposition leader Alassane Ouattara won the November election. Instead he remained on the sidelines, saying that the vote was "inconclusive."

In the meetings on Thursday, his AU committee reportedly called for a power-sharing deal between Mr. Ouattara and his rival, Laurent Gbagbo, despite the UN's declaration that Mr. Gbagbo had lost the election.

A power-sharing arrangement would be similar to the coalition government in Zimbabwe, which Mr. Zuma also supports, even though there is strong evidence that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe lost the 2008 election.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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