The African National Congress (ANC), the party of Nelson Mandela, which was so instrumental in overthrowing apartheid, is facing the most severe challenges yet to its decade-long dominance of South African politics and to its vaunted unity. But that, many observers say, is good news for democracy's evolution in a nation that wields so much influence across the rest of Africa.
The ANC's troubles include:
• In the country's sprawling slums (where it's not uncommon for some 200 people to share a single toilet) more than 900 protests have broken out in the past year - many of them violent - over lack of electricity, running water, and sewers. Most were aimed at local ANC officials, who are often accused of graft, indifference, or both.
• ANC stalwart and presidential aspirant Jacob Zuma was charged with corruption and deposed from his post as deputy president last year. His corruption trial is expected to begin in July. He's now on trial for rape. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated that Mr. Zuma had been convicted of corruption.]
• Despite winning a solid 64 percent of local wards across the country in last month's municipal elections, the ANC lost the mayor's post in high-profile Cape Town.
In a country that's been a virtual one-party state for 12 years, a number of factors are leading to what many see as an inevitable ANC split-up - and the start of a more robust democracy here.
"We're getting closer" to the time when the ANC breaks apart, says Patrick Laurence of The Helen Suzman Foundation here, which promotes democracy. A major reason is that "class is becoming increasingly important and is vying, in some situations, with race as the important cohesive factor" in South Africa.
Protests against the ANC over lack of services show that poor citizens are increasingly unimpressed with the ANC's "struggle credentials" - the fact that the party ended the race-based apartheid system.
Increasingly it's quality of life issues - class-based concerns - that matter most. The loss of the Cape Town mayor's post is emblematic, observers say, of ebbing support for ANC officials who can't deliver.
Indeed, many here see local government - and its central task of delivering crucial services to the poor and blue- collar classes - as the ANC's Achilles' heel.
The tensions have sparked debate within the party - and spawned purges of many local ANC officials. "There's a lot of internal turbulence within the ANC," says Paul Graham, executive director of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, but, in terms of the future of democracy in South Africa, "that's not necessarily a bad thing."
Another central tension involves former deputy president Zuma. After being convicted on corruption charges last year, he was fired by President Thabo Mbeki, a longtime rival. He's now on trial for raping a 31-year-old family friend.
Most here see the drama as a critical test of South Africa's budding democracy - although partisans on both sides of the pro- and anti-Zuma divide see it through different lenses.
To Mbeki critics, Zuma has become the central icon of rebellion within the ANC against Mbeki's aloof and authoritarian leadership style. "Members of the ANC feel paralyzed [and unable] to challenge Mbeki," says Sipho Seepe, a columnist and the academic head at Henley Management College here.
But Zuma has criticized Mbeki, and, if he can escape the political fallout a rape conviction would bring, he'll become "Mbeki's mortal [political] enemy," Mr. Seepe says, thus helping to spark healthy debate within the ANC.
This could even lead to an earlier-than-expected split between Zuma's populist, pro-labor, and ethnic Zulu-based wing of the party and Mbeki's more-conservative, more-free-market, ethnic Xhosa- dominated faction.
To Zuma critics, however, tawdry tales of a former deputy president involved in corruption and possible rape has become a test of this emerging democracy's ability to establish an independent judiciary that can rein in wayward officeholders in the executive branch.
In a new democracy, "It's not inevitable that the politicians just say, 'Let the judicial process take its course,' " says Steven Friedman of the Centre for Policy Studies here. To him and others, South Africa is currently undergoing - and, so far, passing - a crucial separation-of-powers test that many emerging democracies around the world have failed in the past few decades by tampering with judicial processes in order to maintain a tight grip on power.
Many here put great faith in the 1994 post-apartheid constitution as the guarantor of democracy. In contrast to many constitutions in Africa's 52 other nations, South Africa's constitution "institutionally entrenches a whole lot of external actors in the political realm," Mr. Graham explains, referring, for instance, to official government commissions on human rights, gender, cultural, and linguistic rights.
There's also been an "activist constitutional court" and a vocal civil society. The constitution, Graham explains, includes "an attempt to construct a whole big public space [whose actors] are not necessarily partisan" - and therefore act as a check against a nation ruled, essentially, by a single party. The constitution itself, he argues, will safeguard the country until the era of ANC dominance ends.