/ 18 September 2008

Mbeki’s fate hangs in the balance

Political analysts are divided over the fate of President Thabo Mbeki ahead of a watershed African National Congress (ANC) meeting this weekend that may decide on his removal from office.

But experts were in agreement on Thursday that the meeting would also be a crucial leadership test for ANC president Jacob Zuma.

The ANC national executive committee (NEC) will discuss calls from several quarters that Mbeki should resign after a judge suggested he may have been behind a political plot against Zuma.

”If the leadership elected at Polokwane is actually running the ANC, then one would expect a decision not to remove him,” said Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.

”The president of the ANC has expressed his view … It does seem to me an extremely important test — is the ANC being run by the president and his people around him or by the youth league leader?” he added.

Zuma last Sunday compared the Mbeki administration to a ”dead snake”, hinting that it was unnecessary to remove him from office since elections would be held soon.

Past statements by ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe also suggested that he was not in favour of early elections, Friedman said.

But the South African Communist Party and the ANC Youth League are adamant that Mbeki must be removed from office — and league leader Julius Malema claims many NEC members agree with them.

”This will be a test of Jacob Zuma’s leadership as to whether he is able to control the mavericks around him,” said Judith February, of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. If he fails to control those who are out for revenge, I think he would have shown himself to be weak in the face of that.”

She added: ”The decision will depend on whether there is a degree of level-headedness. It will tell us something about what a Jacob Zuma presidency would look like.”

Difficult to predict
Political analyst Adam Habib, of the University of Johannesburg, said it is difficult to predict the outcome of the weekend meeting because there are two strong positions in the ANC in favour and against Mbeki’s removal.

Those who want to see Mbeki leave are motivated by two reasons: a need ”to humiliate him, to embarrass him”, and fears that he would use his position to undermine Zuma.

Others believe Mbeki deserves a dignified exit. ”I think Zuma himself holds this view,” said Habib.

However, Habib does not believe it would be a sign of weakness if Zuma failed to convince those who want Mbeki removed.

”I’m not so sure if that is a sign of weak leadership. It might reflect strong leadership if you allow yourself to be led by a collective … [as opposed to] Mbeki who was pigheaded, not open to persuasion.

”I think it could go either way. A lot of people are bitter and angry in the NEC and sometimes bitterness allows you to act in ways that is not the most strategic. But I still think calm heads will prevail,” added Habib.

Analyst Prince Mashele, of the Institute for Security Studies, holds a different view. ”I think one can conclude safely that the NEC is going to decide to remove President Mbeki,” he said.

”I am not convinced that Zuma is against the removal,” he added.

Mashele said he believes Zuma’s ”dead snake” comment was not intended to communicate that Mbeki should stay on. Rather, it was an attempt by Zuma to create the impression that he was not vindictive.

”The NEC will keep its decision under wraps first … remember how they dealt with the removals of the premiers? They will set a process in motion first,” said Mashele.

But all analysts agreed on Thursday that a removal from office, as suggested by an SMS doing the rounds, would be complicated in constitutional terms.

Friedman said there are three possible scenarios.

In the first option, Mbeki agrees to resign and the National Assembly elects a new president. But only MPs may be elected and Zuma is not an MP.

In option two, Mbeki refuses to resign. Then a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament is necessary to pass a motion that he is not fit to hold office. If the majority vote is achieved — which might be difficult because there are many Mbeki supporters in Parliament — the National Assembly elects a new president.

The third scenario is a vote of no confidence in the sitting government. In that case, a general election has to be called and a caretaker government acts in the meantime.

Either way, a removal from office would be create more uncertainty.

”It will create a political crisis, and does the ruling party want to create a crisis in the midst of an election campaign?” asked Habib.

”The stakes are extremely high,” added February. ”The ANC will need to separate what is in the public interest from what is in the narrow interest of the ANC.” — Sapa