Subdued mood at Mbeki speech as power wanes

The festive tone that once marked South African President Thabo Mbeki’s State of the Nation speeches was absent when he outlined his priorities for 2008 on Friday, two months after losing control of his ruling party.

There was less cheering, singing and dancing as Mbeki’s motorcade pulled up to the ornate Parliament buildings in Cape Town, where he delivered the address. The African drums that often greet his arrival beat faintly.

Mbeki was addressing parliamentarians for the first time since losing the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) in December to rival Jacob Zuma. Mbeki spoke in a subdued tone, echoing the mood of many South Africans.

The country has been roiled by weeks of rolling power cuts that have darkened millions of homes, brought industry to a near standstill and stoked investor fears of a slowdown in Africa’s largest economy.

“I certainly have the impression that it was a sober event. There wasn’t that tone of self-congratulation we’ve seen in previous speeches,” said Susan Booysen, a political analyst at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand.

“It is certainly another sign of a loss of power and another phase of it,” Booysen said.

Late last year Mbeki suffered the worst political defeat of his career at the hands of Zuma, who was overwhelmingly elected as ANC president at a party congress.

“Everything went down this year, so it’s a lot of change and there is a more subdued atmosphere,” said James Masango, an MP for the opposition Democratic Alliance.

The Zuma victory has raised the spectre that Mbeki will be a lame duck for the remainder of his second and final term as state president. He is required by the Constitution to leave office in 2009.

Some analysts have wondered whether the Zuma camp, which has already purged Mbeki loyalists from key party and parliamentary posts, might force Mbeki from office early, possibly through a no-confidence vote in Parliament.

The media has been rife with speculation that Mbeki will choose to step down rather than face such an ordeal.

But the 65-year-old leader gave no sign on Friday that he was ready to abandon ship, as he vowed to quickly solve the power crisis and continue his government’s efforts to reduce poverty, unemployment and crime.

“Whatever the challenges of the moment, we are still on course,” Mbeki told parliamentarians as Zuma watched from a public gallery.

What was not on course was the traditional presidential lunch served to dignitaries and other guests at Mbeki’s official residence nearby. It was cancelled this year, prompting a mass exodus of VIPs after the conclusion of Mbeki’s speech.—Reuters



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