JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- When Jacob Zuma takes the presidential oath Saturday, he will become the leader of a country where at least a quarter of the work force is unemployed and 1,000 people die of AIDS every day.
No wonder South Africans grasped at Zuma's promises of new hope. It is a measure of his political skill that he was able to convince them his 97-year-old African National Congress, in power since the first all-race elections in 1994, was the party of change.
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 this week.
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.
Te Ngubane, a 52-year-old police station clerk, owns one of the more than 2 million homes the ANC government has built for poor South Africans since apartheid ended. But she worries about neighbors still living in shacks.
"Everyone must be happy," she said.
When apartheid ended, the ANC estimated it needed to build 3 million homes. With population growth, migration to the cities and other factors, the housing backlog now stands at more than 2 million despite the building boom.
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.
"They've maneuvered themselves into a tight corner," economist Richard Downing said of ANC leaders' promises to spend more on the poor.
But Downing takes heart in another pledge: to improve government efficiency. It wouldn't cost much, and would improve delivery of water, sewerage and other services that entrepreneurs and other South Africans need.
"It could make a vast difference in how the economy is run," said Downing, who works for the South Africa Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "And it could raise the spirit of the people."
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."
Blade Nzimande, head of the South African Communist Party, could end up education minister. It is not a post likely to give him much sway over economic policy, but it could signal an important change in emphasis. Zuma has said education and training would be a priority, to help blacks left behind by apartheid catch up.
On health, Salim S. Abdool Karim, director of the Center for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa, says he already has seen welcome changes.
"At one level, there's not much you could do worse than under the previous health minister," he said of the much-derided Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who served under President Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang played down the extent of the AIDS crisis and questioned the link between HIV and AIDS and whether AIDS drugs worked. Tshabalala-Msimang instead promoted lemons, garlic and beets as AIDS treatments.
Barbara Hogan replaced Tshabalala-Msimang after Mbeki lost a power struggle with Zuma late last year and was forced by the ANC to step down early as president.
Under Hogan, Karim said the government has shown a new respect for science. But he says it faces an enormous task "because we have to undo the last 10 years or so. ... You've got to catch up with the past, and then start looking forward."
Zuma himself has had to mend fences with AIDS activists, after he testified during his 2006 rape trial that he thought he could protect himself from AIDS by showering after sex with an HIV-positive woman. He was acquitted of rape.
Karim is based in Zuma's home province of KwaZulu-Natal, the region hardest hit by AIDS in a country where more people _ over 5 million _ live with HIV than any other. In the poor rural province, lack of clinics complicates the problems of diagnosing patients, let alone treating them.
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.
Zuma has said he would continue Mbeki's work for peace and economic development across the continent.
Tiseke Kasambala, acting director of the South Africa office of Human Rights Watch, said remaining engaged was in South Africa's interest. It is not only Zimbabweans who have made their way to the continent's economic powerhouse, she points out, but refugees from as far away as Congo and Somalia.
A Zuma presidency could be more positive, Kasambala said. "He's willing to consult and engage before he makes decisions."