After ANC calls on him to quit over conspiracy allegations, nation’s humiliated leader is forced to announce departure ‘within days’
By Basildon Peta in Johannesburg and Raymond Whitaker
South Africa was plunged into political turmoil yesterday as President Thabo Mbeki announced that he would quit within days, following a call by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) for him to resign. His spokesman said he would step down once “all constitutional requirements have been met”.
The departure of the unpopular President, several months before his term was due to end, exposed deep fissures in the party. In the wake of his announcement, Mr Mbeki’s respected deputy, Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, said she would resign in sympathy. Several other cabinet ministers are expected to follow suit.
After a day and a half of debate, the ANC executive said yesterday that it had decided to “recall” Mr Mbeki over allegations that he had conspired to undermine Jacob Zuma, who defeated him for the ANC presidency last year. The recall is the ultimate humiliation for arguably the most important leader on the African continent, who had just won praise for securing a peace deal in neighbouring Zimbabwe.
Although South Africa was politically stable and prosperous during his period in office, with the economy having expanded rapidly since 1999, Mr Mbeki was never popular with the party’s grassroots and the ANC’s trade union allies, who were angered by widening economic inequalities, the President’s eccentric views on HIV/Aids and a perceived lack of concern about the country’s high crime rate.
The ANC’s secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, said Mr Mbeki had remained his usual impassive self when given the news of the executive’s decision, having previously said he would go if asked to. “He didn’t display shock or any depression,” said Mr Mantashe. “He welcomed the news and agreed that he is going to participate in the parliamentary process [to remove him from office].”
Mr Mbeki has called a cabinet meeting today. Later in the week, parliament is expected to vote to replace him temporarily with the speaker, Baleka Mbete, who would become South Africa’s first female leader, pending elections. The country was due to go to the polls next April, at the end of Mr Mbeki’s second five-year term, but it is possible that elections will be called early. Either way, his charismatic long-time rival, Mr Zuma, is now assured of the presidency.
Mr Zuma was fired as deputy president by Mr Mbeki in 2005 after he was implicated in corruption in a controversial multibillion-pound arms deal for which his financial adviser was jailed for 15 years. Since then, the two men have been engaged in an acrimonious battle for the ANC’s soul.
Mr Mbeki’s downfall came after a high court judge, Chris Nicholson, quashed corruption charges against Mr Zuma just over a week ago. He ruled that the national prosecuting authority had failed to follow proper procedures in charging Mr Zuma, and accused it of taking orders from Mr Mbeki, in violation of the constitution. Although Mr Zuma publicly opposed the move to oust President Mbeki, saying one did not “beat a dead snake”, the judge’s words immediately emboldened his supporters who had always argued that their man was being victimised.
Despite his many political blunders, Mr Mbeki was highly regarded by local and international business for his stewardship of South Africa’s economy, but a series of political miscalculations and bad policy decisions will cloud his legacy. He damaged South Africa’s human rights reputation by siding, in the UN Security Council, with repressive regimes such as Darfur and Zimbabwe.
At home, his strange views on Aids, particularly his infamous statement in 2000 that poverty, not HIV, caused the condition, made him many enemies. It took court intervention for Mr Mbeki’s government to agree to provide Aids drugs for pregnant women. He was also seen as favouring loyal sycophants for government jobs.
Few believe that Mr Zuma is completely innocent of the charges that he was facing. But because of the manner in which his prosecution was handled, Mr Zuma won considerable sympathy.
“The fact that we will now have this deeply flawed man [Zuma] as President is squarely because of Mbeki’s fault,” one political analyst said. “If [Mbeki] had not run for the ANC presidency and allowed Cyril Ramaphosa or other credible candidates some leeway, we would probably have had a different result. Very few will mourn Mbeki.”
Rivalry, arrogance and corruption: how revolutionary brothers became enemies
Why is Thabo Mbeki quitting the South African presidency now?
Mr Mbeki was already the lamest of lame ducks. His second and last term of office was due to end next April, but his authority has been shattered since December, when he sought an eyebrow-raising third stint as ANC president, normally a job that goes with the leadership of the nation. His defeat by his bitter rival, Jacob Zuma, made it clear he had lost the party, and with it any chance of influencing the succession.
Why are Mr Mbeki and Mr Zuma such enemies?
Mr Zuma was Mr Mbeki’s deputy and heir-apparent, but was sacked after being charged with corruption in connection with an arms deal that saw his financial adviser sent to jail. In 2006 the charges were struck from the court roll after the prosecution asked for one delay too many in preparing its case, but they were reinstated immediately after Mr Zuma won the ANC presidency, causing suspicion of political interference. Mr Zuma, a hearty populist, is everything the austere, chilly Mr Mbeki is not.
Will anyone be sorry to see Mr Mbeki go?
Foreign investors may be nervous, since Mr Mbeki pursued a vigorous programme of privatisation and tight monetary policies. Earlier this year, Mr Mbeki lectured his countrymen over their xenophobia after jobless South Africans attacked foreign migrants. This might have won him friends outside the country, but at home, left-wingers have been alienated by the lack of effort to redistribute wealth, and Aids campaigners were appalled by Mr Mbeki’s weird ideas on the condition, apparently culled from the internet. For years this hampered the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs in one of the most infected countries in the world.
So what sort of President will Mr Zuma make?
The prospect horrifies many. More than a whiff of corruption lingers around him, his supporters arouse suspicions of anti-white feeling with their choruses of “Bring Me My Machine Gun” – a revolutionary song known to be his favourite – and his views on HIV/Aids, let alone his attitude to women, are as unpalatable as Mr Mbeki’s. In 2005 he was accused of raping a 31-year-old HIV-positive Aids activist. He was acquitted, but caused widespread outrage by announcing that he had showered after sex to reduce the risk of HIV infection. With him as President, many fear that South Africa’s economy will be disrupted by violent changes in policy, but he has pledged continuity. Mr Zuma also won respect for his robust condemnation of Robert Mugabe’s oppression in Zimbabwe during the country’s recent election contest, when Mr Mbeki appeared to be appeasing the old tyrant.
A career cut short
1942 Mbeki is born in the farming village of Idutywa. Both his parents were activists; his father, Govan Mbeki, was imprisoned along with Nelson Mandela for nearly 30 years.
1962 Mbeki is ordered to leave South Africa by the African National Congress, which he joined aged 14, to prepare for a future leading role in the organisation.
1966 Mbeki completes a master’s degree in economics at Sussex University.
1970 After working in the London offices of the ANC, Mbeki moves to the Soviet Union to take part in military training.
1989 After progressing through the ANC, he is one of the key members who begin talks with the apartheid government.
1994 Nelson Mandela wins the general election, and chooses Mbeki as a Deputy President in the new government of national unity.
1997 Mbeki succeeds Nelson Mandela as the president of the ANC and becomes the President of South Africa after the party wins the 1999 election.
2004 South Africa finally introduces a programme to treat the country’s HIV/Aids problem. In the same year, Mbeki wins the election and a second term.
2007 Mbeki loses the leadership contest for the ANC to Jacob Zuma.
2008 ANC executive calls on Mbeki to resign after judge says corruption charge against Zumais politically motivated.