JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Under the bright lights, the corruption allegations and the ethical concerns trailing South African President Jacob Zuma faded away and the master politician basked in his re-election as head of the governing African National Congress party, singing on stage, smiling and waving to cheering delegates.
Whether he can translate his party victory into reassuring the anxious in South Africa, those worried about the nation's flagging economy, violent criminality and the continued poverty striking those his party once aimed to liberate, however, remains the question.
ANC members voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to keep Zuma as the head of the top political party in South Africa, more than likely guaranteeing the 70-year-old leader another five-year term as the nation's president in the coming 2014 general elections. Opposition parties don't receive the same support as the ANC, the party of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela that many in this nation of 50 million people vote for out of that history.
Zuma trounced Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, his only challenger who ran a largely muted and reluctant campaign, getting 2,983 votes to Motlanthe's 991. A smiling Zuma came to the stage immediately after the announcement, waving to the cheering crowd with both hands.
"We can boast that we're a leader of our society, that therefore we have something to contribute to the democratic life of this country, to this democratic Republic of South Africa," Zuma said in brief remarks televised live after his victory. "We are certain that at this course in our democracy we are correct, that what we do at all material times, it is in the interest, not just of our organization, but of our country and its people."
Motlanthe, 63, a former unionist, declined to accept any other post with the ANC at Tuesday's meeting. He embraced Zuma for several seconds after the election results announcement and spoke together on stage in view of delegates.
The ANC must "continue to sharpen its ability to hear the cries of our people," he later told those gathered at the Mangaung conference, held in the city also called Bloemfontein.
In Motlanthe's place, the ANC delegates voted to install wealthy businessman Cyril Ramaphosa as deputy president of the party. Ramaphosa is a former union leader who was the ANC's general secretary during the constitutional negotiations that ended apartheid in 1994. He went on to found an investment empire with interests that include a power plant, McDonald's franchises, a Coca-Cola bottler and mines. In November, Forbes magazine estimated his net worth to be about $675 million.
Ramaphosa has been a leading figure behind the scenes in the ANC, though he shuns interviews and publicly offered no comments on policy or political matters ahead of the vote.
Across the board, all six candidates associated with Zuma swept the voting early Tuesday morning by some 4,000 delegates. That ease served as a stark contrast to the run-up to the conference, which saw disrupted provincial meetings, threats and shootings of local ANC officials.
Police have a tight security presence at the conference, which began Sunday and continues through Friday. Authorities earlier arrested four white men who were charged Tuesday with treason and terrorism offenses over an alleged plot to attack the conference and kill Zuma and other leaders, though it is unclear how far along their planning was.
Zuma was the favorite heading into the conference after winning the nominations in most provincial ANC polls. He has wide support among Zulus, South Africa's largest ethnic group, as well as from a loyal cadre of government and party officials.
But many in the public have grown disenchanted with Zuma, who former President Thabo Mbeki fired as deputy president in 2005 after he was implicated in the corruption conviction of close friend and financial adviser Schabir Shaik over a 1999 arms deal. Newspapers have written numerous articles recently about the millions of dollars of government-paid improvements made to Zuma's private homestead. Zuma has also faced accusations, by the media, of being unable to manage his personal finances and relying on friends and colleagues to bail him out, including, allegedly, Mandela himself.
Zuma has also faced criticism over his sexual activity, having been put on trial on charges of raping a family friend, and acquitted, in 2006. He also once claimed that taking a shower after having sex with an HIV-positive woman would protect him from AIDS, a comment that drew widespread criticism.
He and the ANC also have been criticized for strikes that overtook the nation, particularly in the mining sector, and the handling of violence at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana in August where police shot dead 34 strikers. The Lonmin strike sparked labor unrest at other mines. Ramaphosa is a non-executive director at Lonmin, raising questions about how his wide business interests will affect the government.
After the lights fade from Mangaung, however, Zuma will find himself back in the same position he was before. South Africa's economy remains anemic and the continent's top economy has seen credit downgrades. Meanwhile, the same black citizens the ANC promised to liberate find themselves crushed by the same poverty.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.