By Peroshni Govender
MARIKANA, South Africa (Reuters) - South African's President Jacob Zuma rose to power as a man of the people but seemed a world away from the masses when he stood in a suit under a parasol to speak to destitute miners about the deadliest police killing since apartheid ended.
The deaths of 44 in a labor dispute this month at Lonmin's Marikana mine, including 34 armed miners shot by police, could undermine Zuma's populist appeal and threaten his chances in a December vote where he seeks re-election as the leader of the party that dominates politics.
Zuma's critics say the day last week he spoke to miners for a few minutes under the blazing sun showed him more beholden to special interest groups than to millions of South Africans waiting for him to ease poverty.
He took more time to speak to Lonmin's executives than miners and then left the mine to dance in front of cameras at a ruling African National Congress event, despite declaring a week of mourning.
"Our government is becoming a pig that is eating its own children," Julius Malema, the ANC Youth League expelled from the ruling party after crossing swords with Zuma, said at a memorial service on Thursday for the victims.
"Our government is failing to intervene in mines because our leaders are involved in mines," Malema said.
It is too early to tell how much damage Zuma will suffer from the killings at the Marikana mine, northwest of Johannesburg, but the president's foes have been using the event to store ammunition before December's vote.
"The fact that Zuma ordered police to bring the Lonmin strike under control has exposed him to accusations of complicity in the miners' deaths," Mark Rosenberg wrote in a note for the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
Banished from the ANC, Malema is in a position to say things ANC leaders cannot in public because the party prefers to confine debate to behind closed doors. It also makes Malema influential to those who want to unseat Zuma.
The incident, dubbed by local media the "Marikana Massacre" has hit the base of support that brought Zuma to power, widening a divide between him and his former backers in the Youth League.
The staunch support Zuma once had from the powerful COSATU labor federation has also been called into question with its flagship group, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), finding itself isolated by miners who say it has lost its focus on workers by cozying up to the ANC and mining giants.
Prior to the killings, Zuma seemed headed to a victory at the ANC election, which would put him in a position to remain as South Africa's president until 2019.
While he is still in the driver's seat, the road has become a lot bumpier.
"Before Lonmin, with NUM in his corner, the race was going to be easy but it's going to be difficult to get a clear consensus from COSATU when there are big people who are anti-Zuma," said a senior union official campaigning for Zuma's re-election who did not want to be named.
Nominations for the race open in October and the ANC forbids potential candidates from lobbying ahead of time.
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe is the most viable choice. Insiders say the man who served as caretaker president for eight months from September 2008 when the ANC recalled former President Thabo Mbeki to make way for Zuma, will only raise his hand if he knows he can win.
Before Marikana, Zuma's supporters are believed to have courted Cyril Ramaphosa, the former leader of NUM who is now an ANC heavyweight and one of the country's richest businessmen - offering him the position of deputy president.
The former labor leader and anti-apartheid activist Ramaphosa now sits on Lonmin's board as a non-executive director and has been called a sellout by Zuma's critics, such as former youth leader Malema.
"It's a different ball game now and Cyril is tainted," the Zuma campaign official said.
CRACKS IN SOCIETY
The incident has also laid bare cracks in society with an electorate complaining of growing levels of income inequality and the government's slow pace in addressing apartheid-era infrastructure backlogs in housing, education and healthcare.
Unemployment has inched up under Zuma while the country has slipped in Transparency International's rankings of perceived corruption. Several Zuma allies are being probed on suspicion of using political connections to line their pockets.
COSATU Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi, a potential kingmaker and critic of what he calls a "predatory elite" among the political class, may be looking to garner support from unions in the federation to oppose Zuma's re-election, a senior union official said.
"Something like this (Marikana) is what Vavi and his followers were waiting for. It shows exactly what they were saying," the official said.
COSATU, with 2 million members and in a governing alliance with the ANC, has been a powerful vote gathering machine for the ruling party.
"Those who want to unseat Zuma could not ask for anything better," said a member of the ANC's national executive committee.
(Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Anna Willard)