South Africa is stumbling through its most testing year since the end of white rule 14 years ago.

The after-shocks of last December’s tumultuous leadership election in the ruling African National Congress, which climaxed with the defeat of the incumbent, the national president Thabo Mbeki, by the sometime populist Jacob Zuma, have left the government gravely weakened, hampering its response to a series of political, economic and social crises that have buffeted the country in the past five months.

The widespread impression that South Africa is at times drifting was at its starkest last month when government officials were slow to respond to the outbreak of murderous violence that swept several squatter camps and townships leaving more than 50 people dead, hundreds wounded and more than 30,000 refugees.

Meanwhile, business confidence in the country’s economic trajectory has suffered from an electricity crisis that surged to the front of popular and corporate consciousness in January when it was hit by rolling power cuts.

The shortages, stemming primarily from the government’s failure to plan a new generation of power stations, have led to projections of economic growth for the year being revised down from just under 5 to 4 per cent.

Many economists believe the impact of the power shortages will be more severe and predict 2008’s growth rate will be about 3.5 per cent – considerably lower than the long-term 6 per cent target.

Global economic uncertainty has led to a reduction of the portfolio investment that was helping to fund the current account deficit, estimated at about 7.5 per cent of gross domestic product.

For many commentators this has been the “perfect storm” of bad news.

It has been compounded by the drama in neighbouring Zimbabwe where President Robert Mugabe has unleashed a brutal crackdown on the opposition as he tries to cling to power following his defeat in the first round of the presidential election, in March.

Yet analysts and businesspeople with a long memory draw hope from the recollection that South Africa has seen off many crises of confidence before, not least when Mr Mbeki was about to succeed Nelson Mandela, the country’s first black president, in 1999. Then the question constantly being raised was: “What happens when Mandela goes?”

Within months of Mr Mbeki’s succession, investors were reassured by his confident and prudent handling of the nation’s economy.

Now the question on everyone’s lips is not so much what happens when Mr Mbeki goes, as what happens when Mr Zuma takes over.

Last month’s announcement that his long-awaited trial for corruption, fraud, bribery and tax evasion will not start until next year – at the earliest – has made his succession all but inevitable.

In an interview with the FT this year, Mr Zuma sought to allay concerns that his close links to the unions will lead to a shift to the left and a reshaping of the conservative macroeconomic policies that have been the hallmark of Mr Mbeki’s presidency.

Policies were the ANC’s, he said. “In no way can an individual come [as leader] and say now I’ve come I want a policy to move in this direction.”

Hendrik du Toit, the chief executive of Investec Asset Management, is one of many businesspeople who has taken heart from Mr Zuma’s utterances, but is waiting to see if the ANC leader means what he says.

“As an investor I am quite excited, even though there are many things that can depress you,” says Mr du Toit.

He highlights the need for the government to move fast to improve the quality of life for the poor, reduce the red tape associated with its black empowerment policies, and to do more to tackle the scourge of violent crime.

But he plays down the impact of the electricity shortages – “for heaven’s sake there are shortages in Chile and China”.

He also plays down concerns over the possible impact of the unions’ greater sway. “My sense is that the emphasis will be on productivity and service delivery rather than an extreme populist agenda.”

While Mr Mbeki’s term is not due to end until national elections next year, when he is expected to be succeeded by Mr Zuma, his authority has been steadily ebbing away since his defeat.

Amid calls from the opposition, and some in the ANC and on the left for him to step down early, businesspeople and analysts fret that the country is being harmed by the protracted transition and a lack of firm leadership.

Last month’s mayhem, targeting immigrants from the rest of the continent, has provoked widespread animosity towards South Africa in the rest of the continent. It has also highlighted tensions in informal settlements and townships as the anti-foreigner violence was rooted in the perception that incomers were competing for scarce jobs and resources.

Lesetja Kganyago, the director general of the treasury, punts a reassuring message. He suggests that the South African economy and the rand, which has dropped by nearly 15 per cent this year, have been buffeted more by global than domestic or regional uncertainties. He says confidently that South Africa’s macro-economic policies will continue unchanged whoever is the next president and next finance minister and that the principal policy changes will be aimed at ensuring better delivery of services on the ground.

His boss, Trevor Manuel, the finance minister, delivered a confident “steady as you go” message in his budget this year, sticking to the market-friendly policies that have delivered an average of 5 per cent growth over the past three years.

But there remain misgivings over Mr Zuma’s credentials. His apparent vacillation this year when he gave the impression of tailoring his message to please his audience, whether businesspeople or unionists, revived concerns that he might prove to be the tool of the unions and the left, which helped him to power last December.

“I may be wrong,” says Mr du Toit. “The question is: will the old fat cats be replaced by the new fat cats?” That is one of many critical questions Mr Zuma will have to answer if he takes office.

And it is not just businesspeople and opposition politicians posing such questions now. On a visit to one of the areas beset by anti-foreigner riots, he was challenged by several ANC voters over the party’s record in office.

If, or as seems likely, when he takes over next year, he will not have as long a honeymoon as he might have wanted – or expected.

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