Mbeki on the brink as key ANC leaders resolve to force him out

HARARE – PRESIDENT Thabo Mbeki’s early departure from office looks imminent after it emerged that the powerful national working committee (NWC) of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) had resolved on Monday to seek his speedy resignation.

The NWC is not a decision-making body, however, and its resolution has been sent to the party’s national executive committee (NEC), which is meeting tomorrow to discuss Mbeki’s future.

Business Day understands, but could not confirm with two or more sources, that senior ANC leaders were last night in talks in Pretoria with Mbeki.

The resolve of Mbeki’s party opponents was hardened yesterday by the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA’s) decision to seek leave to appeal against last Friday’s Pietermaritzburg High Court ruling by Judge Chris Nicholson scrapping corruption charges brought against ANC president Jacob Zuma.

So much so that the party appears to have ignored Zuma’s initial caution about removing Mbeki. Mbeki’s imminent ousting threatens to derail Zuma’s hopes for a peaceful period to prepare for next year’s general election. Some leaders fear the party may pay a price for years of infighting between Mbeki and Zuma.

While Mbeki advisers were yesterday mapping out a strategy for him to fight back against the pressure to go following the Nicholson judgment, he faces enormous odds. There seems little he could do to prevent the ANC passing a vote of no confidence in him in Parliament.

Government officials confirmed yesterday that the Nicholson ruling was discussed at length in yesterday’s cabinet meeting. A source said the “cabinet felt maligned by the judgment”, which implied the case against Zuma was engineered by Mbeki and his ministers.

Another source said ministers close to Zuma did not enter the cabinet discussion, saying they felt the real battleground would be the NEC meeting tomorrow. Already the ANC Youth League has said publicly it would lobby NEC members to back its call for Mbeki to go. “We have calculated; this NEC is ours. Mbeki is gone,” an ANC insider said. Senior officials in the party’s top six who were initially opposed to his removal from office have also fallen behind the call for him to go.

An NWC task team has been poring over the constitution to find legal ways to get Mbeki out of office if he resists pressure to resign. It is understood the NEC meeting will debate various options for removing Mbeki constitutionally.

The ANC believes its reading of the constitution allows it to remove the president in two ways, should he refuse to resign. The first option is impeachment for which the party requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament. A second option would allow Parliament to pass a vote of no confidence in Mbeki’s presidency. That would require a simple majority in Parliament.

Should the vote of no confidence go through, it would mean Mbeki’s entire cabinet would have to go. Eleven cabinet ministers serve on the ANC’s NEC under Zuma, and some have already been canvassed about their future.

It is understood several ministers close to Mbeki have indicated they would resign should he be forced out.

ANC leaders appear unconcerned, however, saying that would give the party the option of an immediate cabinet reshuffle. An ANC insider said: “There will be no crises. In fact, I say good riddance to them. We will use the opportunity to make new appointments.”

Mbeki insiders told Business Day yesterday that the president would launch a multipronged fight-back campaign, which suggested that he would not resign willingly. Their argument rests on the NPA appeal process, which they say leaves the matter unresolved. That, they say, would mean the party has no grounds to call for his resignation.

But events and emotions may be moving too quickly for the party to heed niceties now.

Mbeki advisers told Business Day the NPA’s decision to appeal against Nicholson’s ruling that Mbeki had interfered with the corruption case against Zuma provided a legal basis for the judgment to be discredited.

“The appeal implies that the judgment is not the final result in the matter. It would therefore be difficult to take action against the president on the basis of the judgment,” a close Mbeki adviser said.