JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - With a long-simmering political corruption scandal at a boil, all eyes are on President Thabo Mbeki as he weighs how to respond to a court ruling that some experts say is an important test of South Africa's 11-year-old democracy.
Mbeki is under pressure to act after a judge asserted that Deputy President Jacob Zuma had a "generally corrupt relationship" with a Durban businessman recently convicted of graft.
The question is: Will Mbeki - who appointed Zuma - fire him to demonstrate South Africa's intolerance for impropriety and its commitment to the type of good governance that lures foreign aid and investment?
Or will he bow to internal political demands and spare his deputy on the basis that business mogul Schabir Shaik - not Zuma - was the one on trial?
Mbeki's dilemma goes beyond political intrigue. It touches on fears that South Africa - rated the second-cleanest African country, after Botswana, by the international government watchdog Transparency International - could slide into a culture of corruption. And it underscores the notion that Mbeki's ruling African National Congress, once a hallowed liberation movement, is becoming more and more an ordinary political party.
Mbeki's decision is expected any day and could determine who will follow him in four years as the country's third president since the end of apartheid in 1994. Zuma, long seen as a top contender, has shown no willingness to quit, and his allies are marching in the streets to support him.
"Jacob Zuma is undoubtedly extremely popular. The president would have to think very long and hard before taking any drastic action to remove him from his position," said Patrick Craven, spokesman for the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
Attention to the case has reached full froth in the press just as British Prime Minister Tony Blair pushes the United States to increase aid to Africa. President Bush has questioned giving more money to countries if it might be squandered by corrupt leaders.
"Are we seeing in South Africa the beginning of the kind of patrimonial, corrupt state that one has seen in so much else of independent Africa?" said Saul Dubow, a history professor at the University of Sussex in England and author of a book on the ANC.
Dubow said the answer is far from clear. But if Zuma stays, he said, it will frighten white South Africans who are nervous that their country could become another Zimbabwe. That country has spiraled downward since President Robert G. Mugabe began handing white-owned farms to ill-equipped, inexperienced black residents five years ago.
"When somebody is exposed as a corrupt politician in Europe or America, it tends to be contained within the circumstances of that individual and their followers," he said. In South Africa, "it seems to evoke much greater fear and anger on all sides."
Corruption, Dubow pointed out, is not new to South Africa. Graft was "endemic" in the apartheid era and led to the resignation of Prime Minister John Vorster in 1978. "We have to get away from the idea corruption is just a black way," he said.
The Shaik trial dominated public attention for weeks. In a verdict shown on live television, Judge Hillary Squires ruled that Shaik illegally paid Zuma nearly $200,000 over seven years for political favors. Squires also found Shaik guilty of arranging for a French weapons firm to pay Zuma a bribe to stymie a government investigation of the company.
On Wednesday, Squires sentenced Shaik, whose family helped finance the ANC's decades-long struggle against apartheid, to 15 years in prison.
In his defense, Shaik said the payments were harmless loans to a friend and donations to the Jacob Zuma Educational Trust. Testimony at trial depicted Zuma as having weak personal finance skills and relying on Shaik for his lavish lifestyle.
Zuma, 63, has not been charged with a crime. In 2003, the country's top prosecutor said that "prima facie" evidence linked him to corruption but that it would have been difficult to win a conviction.
Now, as several newspapers call for Zuma's exit, his supporters in the ANC's left flank and the trade unions - who think Zuma would pursue economic policies more beneficial to them - are sticking by him. They say he should remain in office unless he is found to have broken the law.
"The manner in which this has been dealt with has been grossly unfair," Zuma told a gathering of business leaders yesterday, according to wire reports. "The media have used this case for political reasons."
He also said he has never been allowed to defend himself in a courtroom against the allegations.
"In this country, we have a constitution that every citizen has a right that they must be taken to court, be tried and be heard, and at the end a judgment be made," he said. "That chance was never given to me."
Some critics have declared the Shaik ruling invalid. The president of the ANC Youth League, Fikile Mbalula, called Squires, who is white, an "apartheid judge" because he served in the Parliament in white-controlled Rhodesia before it became black-led Zimbabwe in 1980.
The ANC has been more circumspect. It issued a statement emphasizing respect for the rule of law and the right to due process. Mbeki's office has said little beyond that it accepts the trial's outcome and Shaik's right to appeal.
Zuma, like other top ANC leaders, has strong "struggle credentials." His father died when he was a toddler; his mother worked as a maid in Durban. Largely deprived of formal schooling, he joined the ANC in 1959 at age 17 and, three years later, went into its military wing.
In 1963 he was arrested, convicted of trying to overthrow the government and sent to Robben Island - the prison that housed Nelson Mandela and scores of other political prisoners - for 10 years.
After his release, Zuma left South Africa to work for the ANC from Mozambique and Zambia. When South Africa lifted its ban on the ANC in 1990, he returned to help negotiate an end to apartheid. He held various political offices, and in 1999 Mbeki named him deputy president.
In that role Zuma has spoken against corruption. In a 2001 speech, he said, "We are building a new society out of the ruins of a system that was extremely corrupt, through which billions of rands were also spent wrongfully and wastefully."
Apartheid, he said in the speech, made corruption "a way of life. That is why our government is investing so much in building a new ethos and inculcating good governance in our country."
It is that fight against corruption that compels Mbeki to dismiss Zuma, many political analysts say, even though he has not been charged.
"I don't think Zuma is going to be the next president of South Africa," said Tom Lodge, a longtime political expert at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Though the ANC is likely to retain power for years - it won 70 percent of the vote in last year's national elections - Lodge said, "This is a political crisis, and it could damage the party quite badly."
The saga, he said, shows that the ANC "is becoming a normal political organization. Of course, the more it's in power, the more ordinary it becomes, morally speaking." He thinks Zuma will be "induced quietly to do the right thing and resign."
Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, who in the 1980s led the vocally anti-apartheid Progressive Party, said: "This is going to be a massive test to see how the president is going to move on the issue of corruption. If he doesn't do it, I'm afraid it's going to damage him very much."
Slabbert said the ANC has done "bloody well" running the country in many regards. It has drawn praise, for instance, for pursuing a largely free-market economic policy.
But he said South Africa is still fragile: "I'm upset and worried it will have bad implications for the resilience of our democratic institutions."
Slabbert scoffed at the notion, advanced by some Zuma sympathizers, that it is unfair to hold him accountable for a relationship that dates to apartheid, when ethical considerations took a back seat to winning the struggle.
"You can't start using old struggle bookkeeping logic to defend corruption in the new democratic order," he said. "Somewhere along, the rule of laws has to kick in. I believe it has kicked in."
If Zuma is out of the running for 2009, when Mbeki is expected to step down after his second term, many wonder who would be in. One name being mentioned is Cyril Ramaphosa, an ANC stalwart, former head of the mineworkers union and now a successful businessman. But he would be no sure thing, Slabbert said: "It's wide open."