Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s president, suffered a humiliation on Tuesday when he was voted out as leader of the country’s ruling African National Congress in favour of Jacob Zuma, the party’s populist deputy. The result, precipitated by some of the worst feuding in the party’s 96-year history, is arguably the most significant event in South Africa since the end of white minority rule 13 years ago.

However, the lustre of Mr Zuma’s triumph was dulled by the threat of a trial on corruption charges, widely expected next year, as a conviction would stop him from leading the country.

Mr Zuma, who has risen to prominence with the support of the trade unions and the left, is now the favourite to become South Africa’s next president after national elections in 2009, given the ANC’s overwhelming electoral dominance.

His sweeping victory, with more than 60 per cent of the votes of the 4,000 delegates, prompted a tumultuous reaction in the Northern Province town of Polokwane.

His supporters banged drums, blew whistles and sang his trademark song “Bring Me My Machine Gun”, an anti-apartheid anthem.

Mr Mbeki wore a thin sad smile as he embraced Mr Zuma on the podium before walking into the shadows. In what amounted to a total rejection of his camp, the ANC’s five other leadership positions were all secured by backers of Mr Zuma and by the same comfortable ­margin.

The president’s supporters sat slumped in their seats, reflecting an extraordinary implosion of his once seemingly monolithic power base in the face of the populist campaign of his old ally turned bitter enemy.

When Mr Mbeki succeeded Nelson Mandela as party leader in 1997 and then national president in 1999 he assembled around him a cast of advisers and his authority seemed impregnable. Now he may face 15 months as a lame-duck president.

As his campaign gathered momentum Mr Zuma wooed business people insisting he would not oversee a big change in economic policy. But investors remain concerned his election could mark an end to the market-friendly policies Mr Mbeki has overseen and could lead to a turbulent 18 months.

The showdown is the first time in more than 50 years that the ANC has had a contested leadership election. While analysts highlight that the strong opposition to Mr Mbeki is a sign of a healthy democratic spirit in the traditionally consensus-driven ANC, party elders fear the bruising election may be merely the beginning of a more heated battle between the two factions.

Tuesday’s vote followed two days of heated ex-changes between the rival supporters at a conference that has appeared to be teetering on the verge of breakdown. On Sunday Mr Mbeki suffered the humiliation of being jeered by some of the delegates in the opening session. recently, he has become unpopular with the grassroots.

Mr Zuma’s candidacy has been controversial given his past. Two years ago he was fired as the country’s deputy president after his financial adviser was convicted of corruption and fraud. Last year he was acquitted of rape but only after he made a series of provocative remarks about women and HIV/Aids. A case against him on corruption charges collapsed on procedural grounds last year but prosecutors have indicated they are close to charging him again.

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