The battle for the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) is becoming ever dirtier and fuelled by paranoia in the final weeks before delegates vote for the as-yet undeclared candidates.
As the party’s 2Â 500-plus branches begin nominating their preferred contender, the challenge on the surface appears a straight contest between incumbent Thabo Mbeki and ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma.
But behind the scenes, a far more bitter contest is being played out, with the rolling of several high-profile heads in recent months seen by analysts as a direct consequence of their membership of rival camps.
“The two main candidates are in mutual destruct mode,” said University of the Witwatersrand political analyst Susan Booysen.
“Everything has been polarised in the war between them.”
Many suspect Mbeki’s recent suspension of the country’s chief prosecutor, Vusi Pikoli, was designed to turn up the heat on Zuma, who has so far avoided prosecution more than two years after his financial adviser was sentenced to prison for corruption.
The 2005 conviction prompted Mbeki to sack Zuma as the deputy head of state, a move which Zuma has always contended was unjustified.
Other perceived sacrificial lambs include Willie Madisha, the sidelined president of the ANC’s labour partner, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), and sacked National Intelligence Agency chief Billy Masetlha.
Madisha, seen as an Mbeki ally, is at the centre of a probe into a missing R500Â 000 cash donation while Masetlha, who is regarded as close to Zuma, was fired by Mbeki in a fake email scam.
“We’ve been in a season of smear and counter-smear,” said Keith Gottschalk, head of the University of the Western Cape’s political studies department.
“There is less and less discussion about policy, and more personal attacks on individuals.”
While ANC custom frowns upon formal campaigning, Zuma and dark horse businessman Tokyo Sexwale have been busy canvassing around the country.
Mbeki, seen as an efficient, pro-business administrator but criticised for his tolerance of dissident Aids views and his hands-off approach to Zimbabwe, has said he would stand for election if asked.
Analysts believe the president’s main aim, however, is to stop Zuma becoming ANC leader.
Zuma, perceived as the leftist candidate, has the backing of Cosatu and the ANC’s youth league, and is widely regarded as a populist.
Pretoria-based analyst Dirk Kotze said the leadership race was sowing mistrust and faction-forming in the liberation movement, whose previous leader, Nelson Mandela, was the country’s first black president.
“There is intense suspicion among members. Everybody wonders where everyone else stands and whose side they are on.”
In government since the whites-only apartheid regime fell in 1994, the ANC has no term limitations on leadership. But the country’s Constitution prevents Mbeki seeking presidential re-election in 2009.
The new party leader will be elected by secret vote at a national conference in December, with each of the nine provinces, the youth league and the women’s league proposing a candidate.
As the battle intensifies, its outcome remains too close to call.
Kotze believes Zuma has been making great strides but could still come unstuck if charged before December.
If Zuma is charged, this could pave the way for Sexwale “as it will then no longer be necessary for Mbeki to stand”, he said.
Booysen believed Mbeki and Zuma had been so weakened that a compromise candidate may be nominated from the floor at the December conference.
These could include former unionist and businessman Cyril Ramaphosa or ANC secretary general Kgalema Motlanthe.
“It is still impossible to call,” said Gottschalk. — AFP