Musicians rehearsed and workers rolled out red carpets before dawn Saturday in the curving stone verandah of the presidency as South Africa prepared to swear in Jacob Zuma with an excitement that recalled Nelson Mandela's inauguration in 1994.
Zuma, the fourth president since apartheid ended 15 years ago, enjoys a popularity many compare to Mandela's. They share rural roots and an easy warmth in crowds, though Zuma's origins are much humbler.
Mandela, 90, has ties to Xhosa tribal royalty and was groomed for leadership from an early age, attending some of the best schools and universities then open to blacks and earning a law degree. The 67-year-old Zuma herded cows instead of attending school as a boy, began working as a teen to help his impoverished family, and rose through the trade union movement and the African National Congress guerrilla force.
Zuma overcame corruption and sex scandals to lead the ANC to a parliamentary election victory in April, and was elected president by parliament May 6. Many impoverished black South Africans believe Zuma's personal struggles and eventual triumph give him special insight into their own aspirations.
And now they are placing in him hopes for change in a country where at least a quarter of the work force is unemployed and 1,000 people die of AIDS every day.
For all the challenges ahead, Zuma says South Africans need only look back for inspiration.
"We made history in the world in 1994 when together we discarded our tragic past, and opted for a future of harmony, peace and stability," he said after parliament elected him president. The extent to which Zuma can deliver will be limited both by global forces and by the realities peculiar to South Africa's troubled history. This is particularly true when it comes to improving the lives of the impoverished black majority, a promise the ANC has been making for 15 years, and which will be harder to fulfill amid a worldwide recession.
"You need your strongest leaders now, anywhere in the world," said Neren Rau, chief executive of the South African Chambers of Commerce and Industry. He said Zuma's charisma could be a key asset, inspiring South Africans to bring their expertise to government. Zuma promises to speed up delivery of houses, clinics, schools, running water and electricity. But he also
has acknowledged the difficulties.
South Africa's economy slipped 1.8 percent during the last quarter of 2008, and a further decrease in the Gross Domestic Product was expected when the first quarter 2009 figures come in. This nation of about 50 million has seen Western demand plummet for the cars it manufactures and the gold and platinum it mines. According to government figures this week, 208,000 jobs were lost between the last quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009. That means more people in need of government handouts and fewer paying taxes.
Zuma is a populist former union activist whose rise to power was supported by the South African Communist Party, a traditional ANC ally. His Cabinet post announcements Sunday will be closely watched, with some counting how many communists he includes. But respected Finance Minister Trevor Manuel is expected to play a prominent role in Zuma's administration.
His free-market policies are credited with increasing economic growth before the global downturn.
When it was clear Zuma was on the way to Mahlamba Ndlopfu _ "the new dawn," as South Africa's version of the White House is known _ the ANC sent its treasurer Mathews Phosa to Europe to assure foreign investors South Africa would "continue on an economic policy path that has rewarded us in the past decade or so."
With so many domestic priorities, Zuma may have little time for foreign affairs. But he cannot ignore what is going on across the border.
Thousands of Zimbabweans have fled their country's economic and political crises. In South Africa, they burden already struggling schools and hospitals. Resentment from South Africans who see the newcomers as competitors for jobs and housing has led to violence. Zuma had criticized Mbeki's "quiet diplomacy," but has softened his tone since that policy led to a deal that in February brought longtime Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe into a unity government alongside rivals he once tried to suppress with violence and vote fraud.
Mugabe arrived in South Africa Friday to attend the inauguration, drawing protests from South African human rights activists.