President Thabo Mbeki said on Sunday that he would not rule out calling early general elections if he failed to win the leadership of the governing African National Congress (ANC) party.
“I have not thought about that one [early poll]. We haven’t got there yet. I don’t know. It’s possible, it’s possible, yes indeed,” he said in an interview with the Sunday Independent.
“It’s a matter that needs to be discussed by the ANC. It’s not a personal matter. The ANC is the government … so, it would be the ANC that considers a matter like that.”
This could see Mbeki retire as the country’s president before his term expires in 2009, if he loses his bid for re-election as ANC leader.
About 4Â 000 delegates will elect the ANC president and other party officials at a conference in Polokwane in two weeks’ time.
Mbeki and his arch-rival, ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma, are the two frontrunners in the leadership race.
Last weekend, five of the nation’s nine provinces rallied behind Zuma, leaving Mbeki — who is seeking a third term as party president — with four.
Zuma also garnered support from the youth and women leagues, giving him a wide margin of votes over the president in nominations.
The presidency of the ANC, which has ruled South Africa since the first multiracial elections in 1994, has become an automatic route to the presidency of the country.
Mbeki, who completes his second term as South Africa’s president in 2009, is constitutionally barred from seeking a third.
Meanwhile, Mbeki may have slipped behind in the race for the leadership of the ANC but is in no mood to give arch-rival Zuma a clear run to the finishing line.
After a week that saw Zuma win the backing of five of the party’s nine provincial branches, the women’s and youth leagues, Mbeki could have been forgiven for pulling up to avoid risking humiliation.
Instead, Mbeki showed he is prepared to press on to the bitter end to avoid becoming a lame duck in his last two years as head of state.
“If the members of the ANC nominate me for the position of [party] president, I have got to respect that,” the incumbent told the South African Broadcasting Corporation in a radio interview.
And in the ANC’s weekly newsletter, ANC Today, he spoke for the first time about Zuma’s ambitions to become president and the qualities needed to lead the ruling party, which traditionally frowns on formal campaigning.
His recent renunciations of tribalism, populism and opportunism were bound to be interpreted as an attack on Zuma, said Mbeki, while insisting they were not.
Zuma was dismissed by Mbeki as deputy head of state in 2005 after his financial adviser was jailed for fraud.
He kept his job as ANC deputy leader, but risks being charged with corruption himself after losing an appeal against the legality of a series of search warrants.
“Whatever the circumstances inside and outside its ranks, at any particular moment, the ANC must defend its principles and values, without any hesitation or equivocation,” wrote Mbeki.
Helen Zille, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance, joined the anti-Zuma chorus on Friday, saying South Africa’s battle against Aids would suffer under his leadership.
Zuma (65) was cleared of rape in a dramatic trial last year, but admitted having had unprotected sex with the HIV-positive woman half his age. He headed the South African National Aids Council at the time.
“It is very unlikely that we can expect resolute leadership on the HIV/AIDS battle from a man who sets such a poor example,” said Zille.
Like Mbeki, Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu refrained from a direct attack on Zuma, but his message similarly required little reading between the lines.
“Those who are electing the president of the ANC should not elect somebody of whom we will be ashamed,” he told Agence France-Presse on Thursday.
Tutu said there was nothing wrong with Mbeki — who must stand down as president of the country in 2009 — seeking a third term as party leader since the ANC’s constitution allowed it.
But he underlined the need for “fresh minds and fresh ideas”, saying the country’s Constitution was sensible in limiting leadership terms to two.
Zuma, meanwhile, has been keeping his head down on an overseas tour, telling expatriate businessmen in London the party will rally behind whoever is leader.
“I can guarantee you that come Limpopo whoever is going to be elected as the president that the ANC will be united behind that leader,” he said. — AFP