ANC on knife edge ahead of Polokwane

President Thabo Mbeki, who has dominated power in South Africa since the end of apartheid, risks being cast aside by his party next week in favour of an arch rival who may yet be charged with corruption.

Mbeki, president of South Africa since 1999, still has two years left as head of state but analysts say a defeat at the hands of Jacob Zuma in the African National (ANC) Congress leadership contest could leave him a lame duck during his last years in office.

For Zuma, victory would cap a remarkable political comeback after he was sacked as deputy president following the fraud conviction of his financial advisor and then being charged with raping a family friend half his age.

A total of 4 075 voting delegates are expected to descend on the sleepy northern city of Polokwane from Sunday to Thursday for a five-yearly conference which will be dominated by the contest between Mbeki and Zuma.

While no one is writing Mbeki off, Zuma is the frontrunner having secured around 60% of votes in the nine provincial branches as well as the full backing of the youth and women’s leagues, all of which send voting delegates to Polokwane.

He also has the support of the ANC’s two powerful leftist allies—the Congress of South African Trade Unions and South African Communist Party.

“A Zuma victory could make it very difficult for Mbeki,” said analyst Steven Friedman of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa.

“One can certainly envisage a situation where pressure will be put on Mbeki by people arguing he is president of the country because of the ANC, and that the ANC should be determining policy.”

Reports have suggested Zuma could try to push Mbeki towards an early exit if he does not have a major say in policy as head of the ANC.

“Zuma is a conciliatory guy. He is good at getting people to work together. But he might have to sell it a bit to the people around him,” added Friedman.

Mbeki, who also ran the government on a day-to-day basis as deputy to Nelson Mandela from 1994 to 1999, has guided the country over a period of non-stop economic growth in the 13 years since the end of whites-only rule.

But while his record has earned him international respect, his autocratic manner along with a tendency to centralise power has won him many domestic enemies—not least Zuma whom he sacked as deputy president in 2005.

“Many believe the time has come for a less combative approach to leadership.
President Mbeki spent most of his time attacking almost everybody, and he was not open to collective decision-making,” said Sipho Seepe, a political commentator and president of the South African Institute for Race Relations.

In contrast, Zuma has been reaching out to sectors of the community—such as business leaders and the Afrikaans population—who are natural sceptics.

Without making direct attacks on his challenger, Mbeki has kept the spotlight on Zuma’s sexual and alleged financial indiscretions by reminding ANC members of the ethical qualities required for the top job.

Last year, the polygamous Zuma was acquitted of rape but was ridiculed for testifying he took a shower after sex with his HIV-positive accuser to prevent infection, and for saying she elicited the encounter with her choice of dress.

Given the ANC’s overwhelming majority in Parliament, a victorious Zuma could normally expect to become head of state in 2009.

However his situation is complicated by the possibility of being charged with corruption as part of a long-running inquiry into a defence deal which has already seen his financial advisor Schabir Shaik sent down for 15 years.

He recently lost a bid to have a series of search warrants declared illegal in a judgement prosecutors said removed “one of the major hurdles” to charges.

A third candidate could be nominated from the conference floor but will need the unlikely backing of 25% of voting delegates to make the shortlist.

The new leader will be installed next Thursday, alongside 65 other members of the new national executive committee. ‒ Sapa-AFP

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