ANC officials were expected to inform him later on Saturday morning. Mbeki was not at the meeting that decided he would not complete his term of office.
The watershed decision was taken after hours of debate on Friday at the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting in Esselen Park, Gauteng.
The meeting discussed a damning finding by Judge Chris Nicholson that the National Prosecuting Authority has danced to the tune of its political masters. This resulted in the state’s more than seven-year corruption probe against ANC president Jacob Zuma.
Yesterday’s meeting was not the first time Mbeki’s departure from office was discussed. In July, the South African Communist Party (SACP) called for his axing. This was not supported by the ANC at the time. But, Nicholson’s judgment last week angered senior ANC members who had long believed there was a political conspiracy against Zuma — orchestrated by Mbeki.
Nicholson inferred that Mbeki and the cabinet had meddled in the National Prosecuting Authority’s investigation into Zuma alleged fraud and corruption linked to the arms deal.
Word of the decision spread in text message at about 1.30am which read: “Mbeki is history. It’s official.”
Sources at the meeting confirmed shortly afterwards that the decision had been made.
A close aide to Zuma said: “Why did he (Mbeki) force us to go this far! I don’t know why he let it come to this.”
The aide said Zuma did not oppose the decision, but instead allowed all views to be expressed at the meeting, including NEC members who had argued that Mbeki serve out his term.
Sources say some cabinet ministers — 11 are members of the NEC — took a stand at the meeting, saying they would not support a motion that may bring “instability to the country”.
But the argument that Mbeki leave on the grounds that he had abused his office and state organs — as was found in Nicholson’s judgment last week — held sway.
Until the early hours of the morning, cellphones buzzed as the news spread. Another source said: “No more Mbeki. It’s done. Finally the movement is free of that man.”
A source in the ANC’s parliamentary caucus also confirmed that the NEC had decided that Mbeki had to leave.
It is understood that National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete will become acting president. Parliament will decide by vote who will serve as president in the remaining months before next year’s election.
The NEC meeting had been bogged down in debate in which there was little consensus until 7.30pm on Friday. Or so it appeared when the party called a press conference at that time. Dozens of local and international journalists gathered for a press conference at Esselen Park. Many believed they would hear a pronouncement on Mbeki’s fate.
But ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe dashed these hopes, saying he told them he had nothing to report.
“There is nothing to tell you. We are in the middle of a difficult debate, there is no conclusion. There are still 30 speakers on the list,” he said.
Marked differences between members of the NEC, who spent all of Friday discussing Nicholson’s judgment, scuppered any chance of a quick decision.
Insiders say that for most of the day the NEC speakers seemed to favour axing Mbeki.
Prior to the watershed gathering, moderates in the Zuma camp suggested he would rescue Mbeki. However, insiders say Zuma was “noncommittal” on the first day of the meeting.
The meeting also discussed some issues relating to an interim administration.
Throughout Friday, an anxious SA waited for news. Rumours swirled as the meeting progressed.
Text messages alleging that Mbeki had dissolved the entire cabinet circulated after news reports broke on Friday that the NEC had resolved to instruct Mbeki to step down.
Another text message claimed half of the cabinet would “walk” if Mbeki was axed, in a show of solidarity with the president.
Yet another text message proclaimed Mbeki would hang tough and not resign, but would subject himself to party discipline.
Late on Friday night NEC members continued to lobby for Mbeki’s removal from office.
Sources said Mantashe’s report to the NEC earlier in the day damned Mbeki and was unambiguous about what needed to be done.
The secretary-general apparently “outlined his reasons for wanting Mbeki to go”.
Mantashe refused to be drawn at Friday night’s press conference, saying: “Input is not output. There is no decision yet.”
Mantashe, who also chairs the South African Communist Party (SACP), earlier this year opposed its call to remove Mbeki.
But, according to a source, he told Friday’s gathering that he “was convinced that the ANC could do better without Mbeki”, having considered Nicholson’s judgment.
Mbeki was expected to leave for New York on Saturday where he is attending a United Nations meeting. There was no indication on Saturday how the decision was going to be communicated to him — or how it had been received.