Mbeki takes flak as ANC battle nears finale

After eight years at the helm of Africa’s economic powerhouse, Thabo Mbeki cuts an increasingly lonely figure as the battle for the reins of the African National Congress (ANC) approaches its finale.

As well as taking fresh blows from his political foes, the president has also become the target of senior ANC party members.

Among those taking aim in recent days have been presidential hopeful Tokyo Sexwale, ANC labour alliance partner the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and even a risk ratings agency.

And with Mbeki’s public support at a four-year low, talk of an alternative candidate for the ANC presidency at a conference in mid-December gathered pace.

“A significant number of people have lost faith in the president because they perceive he does not take them seriously, that he does not inform them of decisions that are important,” said Steven Friedman of the Pretoria-based Institute for Democracy in South Africa.

Mbeki steps down as head of state in 2009 but can contest a third term as ANC president, a position coveted by Sexwale and the party’s deputy leader Jacob Zuma, a leftist whom Mbeki fired as deputy head of state two years ago.

Party rules preclude formal campaigning but in an interview last week, Mbeki said that if the nomination process showed members wanted him “to continue to be a president of the ANC, you can’t say no”.

His possible contestation has drawn criticism from ratings agency Moody’s which warned investors might interpret it as reluctance to relinquish power.

As Mbeki faces mounting criticism for an authoritarian style, a TNS Research Surveys poll put his public support at 40%—down from 66% in April 2005.


Even old ghosts came back to haunt him last week, as former ANC lawmaker Andrew Feinstein launched a book alleging he oversaw a corrupt arms deal a decade ago.

“When humility is lost and omnipotence assumed, failure and tragedy inevitably follow. And I regard Thabo Mbeki’s presidency of the ANC and the country ... to be a tragedy,” said Feinstein.

Zuma and Sexwale have meanwhile been addressing rallies to push a message for change as Mbeki defends his record on the economy and public services.

Sexwale, a prisoner of the apartheid regime who became premier of South Africa’s richest province before joining the business world, recently blasted the government’s record under Mbeki on the twin scourges of HIV/Aids and crime.

“HIV causes Aids.
Which tyrant will stop me from saying that?” he asked, in reference to Mbeki’s alleged denialist stance.

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, meanwhile, used a rally to reiterate backing for Zuma and warned that the federation’s alliance with the ANC would not survive an Mbeki re-election.

Senior lawmaker Kader Asmal, a former education minister, has nominated businessman Cyril Ramaphosa—citing the need for humility in a new leader.

Ramaphosa, a former trade unionist who was Nelson Mandela’s choice to succeed him eight years ago, has not commented on his near unanimous nomination by Asmal’s branch in Cape Town, which is home to a number of top ANC members.

Behind the scenes

But political commentator Xolela Mangcu believes Mbeki’s apparent troubles are swinging things in Zuma’s favour rather than any third party.

“Zuma has got the upperhand now,” he said.

“If either Sexwale or Ramaphosa makes it to the shortlist, it will be the result of a negotiated settlement behind the scenes rather than straight forward branch nominations.”

The ANC’s electoral commission, made up of party veterans, will announce the final candidates about two weeks before December’s conference when the leader will be elected by secret ballot.

Analysts warn against reading too much into the current public scramble, saying the real battle would remain behind closed party doors.

“The only prediction I am willing to make is that it will be a surprise to all of us,” said University of Cape Town’s Robert Shrire. - Sapa-AFP

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