Mbeki and Zuma show differing leadership styles in the race for the ANC presidency

Over the past few weeks Jacob Zuma has, with his actions rather than his words, announced his return to the fight for the presidency of the ANC.

Over the past few weeks Jacob Zuma has, with his actions rather than his words, announced his return to the fight for the presidency of the ANC.

You will remember that over the past few months it looked like Zuma had himself decided that the battle for the presidency of the party was not worth it.

He had increasingly taken a back seat in the public arena. The name Zuma and the song Umshini Wami were not in the public sphere as they had been for most of last year.

But the signs of a Zuma resurgence are all there. First he took a public HIV test in rural KwaZulu-Natal and spoke afterwards of the need to escalate the fight against the scourge.

Then he visited the family of an Afrikaner farmer who had been killed by robbers in Meyerton, just outside Johannesburg.

He also reached out to Afrikaners on issues of name changes and met popular Afrikaans singer Steve Hofmeyr on the issue.

This is over and above the numerous other public appearances that he has made in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and elsewhere.

Be mindful that at the farmer's home Zuma said that crime was not a "perception, but a reality" for the family. This is in stark contrast to Thabo Mbeki's assertion on the SABC that crime was a mere perception.

Mbeki has not really acknowledged the seriousness of HIV and Aids in the country - he devoted a mere paragraph to it in his state of the nation speech last month - while Zuma has taken a public test to check his status.

Mbeki, on the other hand, has refused to lead by example and take a public HIV test.

In many ways, Zuma is fashioning himself as a man of empathy and of the people. Further, though, he is putting himself in a space that shows up Mbeki's weaknesses.

Do not be fooled into thinking that Mbeki himself is not campaigning very seriously for the presidency of the ANC. He is.

Over the past year Mbeki has visited ANC provincial leaders and intervened in their troubles.

He has been to North West, where a titanic and damaging struggle between Mbeki and Zuma factions has been going on, and has got the tenuous backing of the leadership there.

He has done the same in Eastern Cape, where the new provincial leadership has asked him to stand for a third term as the ANC president.

In Limpopo the current ANC leadership led by Premier Sello Moloto continues to back him, and the same can be said of the Mpumalanga leadership.

He also has the backing of one or both of the warring factions in Western Cape.

Gauteng has always been a bedrock of Mbeki's leadership, and under Premier Mbhazima Shilowa it is likely to continue to be unshakeable in this regard.

Note that in all these instances it is not the rank-and-file that is loyal to Mbeki or wants to see his continued leadership. It is the provincial leadership that wants it so.

This therefore means that Mbeki is hoping that these provincial leaders will be able to convince their members to sway things his way come the elections for party president in December.

The KwaZulu-Natal provincial leadership remains the joker in the pack. At times it has come out for Zuma and at others it has seemed to veer towards Mbeki.

Indeed, there is so much in-fighting between the various factions of the party in that province over this issue that only the brave would try to predict in which direction exactly the leadership there veers.

So, then, what is going on here? What we are seeing is a contest between two differing styles of leadership.

Mbeki has always believed in the strength of backroom negotiations.

His two terms in office have been underlined by a love for one-on-one meetings with people like Robert Mugabe, away from the public eye.

In his relations with business, with international diplomats and other such-like, Mbeki seems to believe that cajoling behind the scenes is the best possible way to resolve issues.

Zuma, on the other hand, goes for a more public stance.

He has apologised for making such stupid comments as that he had a shower after sex with an HIV-positive woman and for other mistakes.

As he apologised, he has also gone ahead to empathise with the very real grievances of the people of South Africa.

He has spoken about crime and empathised with the feelings of Afrikaners about marginalisation.

Which of these two styles is more believable? Which one will sway delegates at the ANC conference in Limpopo in December? With a very long nine months to go, things could still change between these two foxy opponents.

However, a few things need to be remembered as the date approaches.

The first is that Mbeki has achieved remarkable success through his backroom style.

Remember when, out of the blue, the late former ANC Youth League president Peter Mokaba endorsed Mbeki before the Mafikeng conference of 1997 and thereby propelled him to power?

Remember how Mbeki has managed to get the opponents in the Democratic Republic of Congo to come to the table and finally make peace?

His methods have not always worked, but they have been effective in some very important respects.

Zuma has managed to get numerous ANC members to see him as a possible party leader.

He has attracted their sympathy and made them believe his story that he is a victim of a vast conspiracy.

If his charm and powers of persuasion were not a powerful tool, then he would not be spoken about as a potential president today.

These are the styles that are fighting for supremacy this year. Which one will come out tops?