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Would-be leader raises hope, fear

Meet Jacob Zuma, likely South Africa's next president

NOBODY, South Africa - In his rise to the pinnacle of South Africa's ruling party, Jacob Zuma has thrilled and unnerved this diverse nation.

He has raised hopes of broader economic rewards but also prompted fears of the kind of strife that South Africans are used to watching from afar, in troubled neighbors such as Zimbabwe.

Even within a single complex of boxy, government-built brick homes here in the curiously named village of Nobody, views of Zuma range from villain to savior.

"If he can do something better than [President Thabo] Mbeki, we will have a little hope," said Imelda Maahlo, 42, who trained as a teacher, only to spend most of the last five years unemployed.

The broad outlines of Zuma's biography are well-known to South Africans.

He is the son of working-class parents; he rose through the ranks of the African National Congress to become the country's deputy president; he was fired from that post by Mbeki on allegations of corruption in 2005.

The corruption charges were dismissed, and Zuma was acquitted in May 2006 of unrelated rape charges. On Tuesday, he was elected president of the ANC and is considered the favorite to win the national presidency.

The election this week amounted to a rebuke of Mbeki's distant, professorial style and his economic policies, which put sustainable growth above relief for millions of impoverished people.

Maahlo, a mother of six, lives in a three-room home in a tidy complex in which hundreds of houses are arranged in rows, most with water taps out front and small lawns.

Her village is split down the middle by Route R17, the highway between the regional capital of Polokwane and the university campus that is hosting the ruling-party conference behind police checkpoints and coils of barbed wire. Residents said they have watched in astonishment the legions of Mercedes and BMW cars speeding past.

A traveler, the story goes, came up with the name for the village after being warned in a dream by a ghost that "Nobody sleeps here!"

The government of former President Nelson Mandela, the first of the post-apartheid era, started building the housing development here, but it was Mbeki's administration that finished it after taking control in 1999. Mbeki also expanded a system of social-service grants, which has benefited residents of Nobody.

Maahlo receives $120 a month in child support. Still, the tap out in front of her home often runs dry, the tin roof leaks, and electrical service has not arrived.

Zuma has not publicly articulated a plan to fix these problems, or most others. He has not yet uttered a public word of any sort at the weeklong party conference, though he is scheduled to make a speech today.

What is widely known about Zuma is that he is deeply in debt to South Africa's socialist-leaning trade union movement and Communist Party, as well as the populists of the African National Congress Youth League.

The other thing virtually every South African knows is his lyrical but provocative theme song, "Bring Me My Machine Gun," which whites in particular find alarming, with its echoes of armed struggle in a nation that witnessed bloody clashes before the end of apartheid in 1994.

The discomfort extends to many "coloreds," as mixed-race South Africans call themselves, and also to some blacks, especially the highly educated upper middle class that prospered under Mbeki.

Even in Nobody, where the incomes are low, Zuma's legal history and his populist instincts prompt concern.

"With the cases that he was involved in, I'm not happy with him," said Mmaphuti Moreroa, 33, a mother of three who works in a nearby Wimpy fast-food restaurant and lives across a sandy street from Maahlo.

She feared Zuma's election signaled instability ahead.

"We see what's happening in Burundi, what's happening in Rwanda, what's happening in Zimbabwe," Moreroa said. "We don't want those things to happen here."