New fight over South Africa's Mbeki would weaken ANC

JOHANNESBURG, (Reuters) – Fearful of worsening internal divisions ahead of next year's election, South Africa's ruling ANC is likely to resist pressure to force out President Thabo Mbeki before his term is up.

A power-sharing deal he brokered for Zimbabwe gave Mbeki a bit of a lift this week, but his waning credibility at home has been further damaged by accusations of political meddling in the now scrapped graft trial of likely successor Jacob Zuma.

Mbeki’s foes already accuse him of failing to help the poor at the expense of business, of failing to head off power cuts that crippled mines earlier this year and of failing to effectively tackle crime and AIDS.

The militant youth league of the African National Congress is leading the charge to depose Mbeki before the election scheduled for next April and plans to lobby the party’s executive, which is due to meet at the weekend.

"Mbeki will not be president of the country when we go to elections," vowed ANC Youth League President Julius Malema.

But analysts said such a move would only split the party that has dominated South Africa since the end of apartheid and hand the opposition political ammunition ahead of the poll.

Although the ANC is not going to lose its majority and party leader Zuma is likely to easily win the presidential vote, the loss of any parliamentary seats could weaken its overwhelming strength when it comes to shaping laws.

"I don’t think they are ready to split the party and it is not exactly the best way to prepare for the elections," said Nick Borain, political consultant to HSBC Securities, on the prospecting of pushing Mbeki out early.

"It will be very foolish of the ANC at this point," he said.

 

DIVISION

The party has already been riven by the squabble between Mbeki and Zuma, who won the ANC leadership last December after a bitter contest.

Zuma has the backing of powerful unions and grassroots ANC supporters who feel Mbeki’s policies have been too pro-business and that steady economic growth — now slowing — has not benefited the poor.

Mbeki’s camp fears Zuma could damage South Africa’s economic prospects. Markets are also wary of Zuma despite his charm offensive to make clear there would be no major policy change.

Zuma’s camp was given ammunition against Mbeki in the ruling that threw out the Zuma corruption case last week.

Judge Chris Nicholson linked the case to the "titanic political struggle" between Mbeki and Zuma and made clear he believed there had been political interference — as Zuma’s backers long complained.

A South African president can be removed if two-thirds of parliament supports a vote outlining he was guilty of a serious violation of the constitution or laws. He can also be removed through a vote of no confidence which needs just a majority.

The ANC’s National Working Committee has been meeting to discuss a response to the judge’s conclusions. The National Executive Committee will meet at the weekend to take a decision.

 

"DEAD SNAKE"

Zuma has already said there is no need for Mbeki to make an early exit and called for party unity ahead of the election.

In terms not exactly complimentary to Mbeki, Zuma was quoted by South African media as having said that to waste energy on Mbeki was tantamount to "beating a dead snake."

Analyst Borain said Zuma had no interest in ousting Mbeki.

"He is more mature than the youth league who are ruled by uncontrolled emotions," said analyst Borain.

Whatever the fate of Mbeki before the election, it could cost votes to the ANC, which has prided itself on its iron discipline in the fight against apartheid and has faced no serious challenge to its rule since 1994.

"If they humiliate Mbeki by forcing him to resign, it will create an opportunity for the opposition to take votes away from the ANC," said Nel Marais, a political analyst at Executive Research Associates.

Although the main opposition Democratic Alliance is not particularly strong, it has seized on the controversy over the Zuma case and has demanded that Mbeki respond to the accusations of interference.

But regardless of whether Mbeki is forced out before his time, investors are looking ahead more to what happens in the new administration than the dying days of the current one.

"Most people obviously agree that the ANC will emerge as the majority party," said Mike Davies, Middle East and Africa analyst at Eurasia Group.

"It is going to be the cabinet appointees that people will be watching for initial signs of policy continuity and those aspects".