The African National Congress (ANC) plan to remove President Thabo Mbeki from office is carefully crafted to ensure that his departure will not lead to an early election.
Insiders in the party are saying that although it is now imperative for the ANC to get rid of Mbeki, it must be done in a way that will not force the party to go the polls prematurely, as this will throw its planning into disarray.
The plan is to replace Mbeki with parliamentary speaker and ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete, but this will not be done through a parliamentary vote of no-confidence or by impeachment.
Instead, all stops will be pulled out to get Mbeki to step down voluntarily and avoid a public battle. Mbeki indicated to his Cabinet this week that he will not defy the ANC’s leadership if they tell him to go.
A senior ANC member confirmed to the Mail & Guardian that Mbeki had told his Cabinet colleagues that he was prepared to step down.
”I think he did that because he believes that no one in the ANC leadership will have the guts to approach him. He is still under the impression that people are afraid of him. But we will send a delegation, which will include ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, to inform him about the national executive committee’s [NEC] decision,” the source said.
The NEC is to make a final decision when it meets on Friday. However, it is understood that the committee’s core leadership, the national working committee (NWC), decided at a meeting on Monday to recommend Mbeki’s removal as president.
It is understood that ANC leaders will engage premiers and Cabinet ministers who might resign in solidarity with Mbeki, asking them to remain in their positions and avoid a full-scale exodus, which could damage the government.
After the NEC’s decision, the intention is to send a high-ranking delegation to ask Mbeki to do ”the honourable thing” by stepping down and avoiding the embarrassment of being ousted by a motion of no-confidence.
The NWC met in Johannesburg on Monday, after last week’s damning judgement by Judge Chris Nicholson, which implicated Mbeki in a political conspiracy to thwart ANC president Jacob Zuma’s presidential ambitions.
A series of meetings between Mbeki, his Cabinet and ANC leaders took place this week to deal with Mbeki’s future and the fallout from the judgement.
In addition, all ANC provincial executives are understood to have met this week to formulate their positions. KwaZulu-Natal resolved that Mbeki must go.
A highly placed ANC source who attended the NWC meeting told the M&G this week the party’s top brass had unanimously agreed that Mbeki should be removed before his term ends next year.
This marks a major shift in the party’s initial position that he should serve until his term comes to an end, despite calls by its alliance partners for him to be recalled.
”Nicholson’s judgement was a final nail in the coffin for Mbeki,” said the ANC source. ”Everyone in the meeting agreed he has to go now. The first step will be to ask him to resign voluntarily.”
In a statement this week, Mbeki and his Cabinet said Nicholson’s inference that there was political interference in the NPA’s prosecuting decisions was ”untested” and ”untrue, unfounded and [did] not hold water”.
The M&G understands that the ANC’s top officials, including Zuma, ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe and Mantashe, were due to meet Mbeki at his official residence in Pretoria on Wednesday to explain the NWC’s decision and get his side of the story.
Mbeki is said to have been away at his farm in KwaZulu-Natal and the meeting was postponed to Thursday. By the time of going to press it had not taken place.
Said another senior ANC member: ”The officials wanted to hear his side of the story and talk to him about the way forward and the process that can be followed. They will then be able to tell the NEC what they’ve agreed on.”
Speaker Mbete has been suggested as the caretaker president because Zuma does not want to be seen as toppling Mbeki for his own gain.
”Zuma can’t get in now. He must first be voted in by the people. But what is clear is that we don’t want [Deputy President] Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka as acting president. She’s worse than Mbeki.”
A suggestion by one member of the NWC that Mlambo-Ngcuka should serve as acting president in Mbeki’s place was apparently shot down by most NWC members, especially the women.
Some within the NWC also suggested that she be removed from her position as deputy president, but the matter was left for the NEC to decide.
Motlanthe, who was appointed to Cabinet recently to bridge the divide between Luthuli House and the Union Buildings, was also unlikely to take over as an interim president, as he is viewed with suspicion by the Zuma camp.
”The ANC’s deployment committee will have to deal with the issue of who becomes the interim president,” said a senior ANC leader.
Spirit of vengeance
Although the ANC majority clearly supports the removal of Mbeki, the decision to sack him will not come without a fight, especially from those who supported his re-election as ANC president.
A senior ANC provincial leader sympathetic to Mbeki said the decision to force him to step down was fuelled by the spirit of vengeance. ”They have been looking for this thing for a long time.”
Mbeki’s supporters insist that his removal will fracture the ANC even further. They predict that Cabinet ministers will resign in solidarity with him, disrupting government to the detriment of the ANC before national elections.
”If he goes, most of Cabinet will go with him. They won’t stay,” one of Mbeki’s advisers said. ”This is an internal thing. They are forgetting that electoral politics is different. It is the image of the ANC that will lose. You can’t just wish him away,” the adviser said.
ANC chief whip Nathi Mthetwa told the M&G that he had raised the issue of firing Mbeki in City Press at the weekend as an ”individual view”.
He refused to comment further, saying the NWC had met and discussed the issue and a final decision would be made by the NEC.
”I will go there [to the NEC meeting] armed with what I’ve got; someone else will bring their own armament. I’m speaking metaphorically,” he said.
He would not venture an opinion on the outcome of the NEC meeting, but said ”[after the NEC] there will be no basis for retraction of my statement”.
The parliamentary route for the removal of a sitting president is set out in sections 89 and 102 of the Constitution.
These clauses allow for the president to be impeached by a two-thirds majority or to be removed in a vote of no-confidence by a simple majority.
For the first option the ANC may need the help of opposition parties including the Democratic Alliance and Independent Democrats, which have both called on Mbeki to step down.
The M&G could not confirm rumours that some of Mbeki’s supporters are considering forming their own party if he is hounded out of the ANC.