ANC faces split after Mbeki ouster

JOHANNESBURG – Supporters of deposed South African President Thabo Mbeki may split from the ruling African National Congress and contest elections as a breakaway party in 2009, South Africa's Sunday Times said.

The move threatens to shatter the foundations of the country’s post-apartheid political landscape, which has been dominated by the African National Congress, and tilt Africa’s largest economy to the left.

Mbeki, who has followed a pro-business line since taking over from Nelson Mandela as president in 1999, agreed on Saturday to accept the ANC’s request that he resign before the end of his term next year.

Ministers began arriving for an emergency cabinet meeting in Pretoria on Sunday. A government spokesman said he was not aware of any cabinet resignations, SAfm radio reported.

Mbeki’s downfall came about a week after a judge suggested there was high-level political meddling in the graft case of Mbeki rival and ANC leader Jacob Zuma, the frontrunner to win the next presidential election.

Although Mbeki’s willingness to give up the reins without a fight suggests an orderly transition of power, a number of ministers have threatened to resign rather than serve in a Zuma-controlled government.

Some are contemplating the unthinkable: leaving the ANC.

The Sunday Times said Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota, Deputy Defence Minister Mluleki George and other Mbeki loyalists are planning to start a new party and organisers will meet this week to discuss the move.

"I’m not in a position to discuss this thing at this stage, but in a few days or a week you will hear the details," George told the newspaper.

The ministers were not available for comment.

Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has already said she intends to resign with Mbeki, and others could also leave the ANC, which fell under the control of Zuma after he beat Mbeki for the party leadership late last year.

Zuma has strong support from the country’s powerful trade unions and its small but influential communist party. Mbeki’s wing of the party is more friendly to investors, having adopted policies that spurred nearly a decade of economic growth.

Ministers could begin resigning as early as Sunday after the cabinet holds an emergency meeting. Mbeki will address the nation in a live broadcast after the meeting at 1730 GMT.

PREVENTING A COLLAPSE

Zuma and other senior ANC officials are trying to prevent a mass exodus of the cabinet, which could trigger early elections. The country had not been expected to go to the polls until April or May of next year.

ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe has appealed for ministers and civil servants to remain in their positions.

Zuma is not expected to take over immediately. A transitional leader, likely parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete, a Zuma loyalist, is likely to be named to replace Mbeki and possibly serve the remainder of his final term.

Analysts said the prospect of a new party, either led or inspired by Mbeki, represented a threat to the ANC, which has held a stranglehold on power since spearheading the drive to end white minority rule in 1994.

The ruling party is a broad church, with its base of support ranging from radical leftists to business tycoons. But it has been in crisis for several years due to the infighting between the Zuma and Mbeki camps.

The battle reached a fever pitch about a week ago when a judge threw out a corruption case against Zuma and suggested there had been high-level political meddling in his case.

That ruling and prosecutors’ decision to appeal it prompted militant Zuma supporters to demand that Mbeki quit. The Zuma camp has argued that Mbeki and his senior aides used the justice system to smear Zuma and derail his presidential ambitions.

Mbeki has consistently denied the charge.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions, the largest labour federation in the country, and the South African Communist Party, have been pushing the Zuma-led ANC to make a radical shift away from Mbeki’s pro-business policies.

They want the next government to focus mainly on fighting poverty and unemployment, doing more to redistribute income from the wealthy and nationalising major industries.

Zuma has tried to reassure investors that there will be no wholesale change to policy under his administration. Reuters