Mbeki Moved On

Is the removal of the South African president a sign of a vibrant democracy or a prelude to crisis?

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The ANC insisted the move was meant to restore unity and stability to party and country.

Ironically, it has been Mbeki's conservative economic policies that provided stability for this young democracy, which was practically broke when it took power from the oppressive apartheid regime. Since, the South African economy has been growing at a rate of 4.5 percent a year and enjoyed a budget surplus in recent years.

But while business leaders praised Mbeki's economic policies that led to the creation of a black upper class and an expanding middle, critics, especially those on the left, including the communist party and the trade unions complained that these policies did little to address the grinding poverty in which the majority of black South Africans still live. The country would need even higher growth rates to absorb the masses of unemployed, somewhere between 30 and 40 percent.

The critics on the left want to see more government intervention in the economy and perhaps even nationalization, which Nelson Mandela categorically rejected early in his tenure. His declaration helped calm jittery international investors and paved the way for the prosperity Mbeki and his finance minister, Trevor Manuel, ushered in and maintained.

Manuel and nine other cabinet ministers announced their resignations today as a result of the Mbeki outser, but has Manuel indicated that he would be willling to serve the new president is he is asked to do so.

The ANC announced Monday that the caretaker president, until elections next year, will be Kgalema Motlanthe, a highly respected party leader, who, despite being a Zuma supporter, also has a reputation for independent thinking and consensus building.

Many will be watching to see how the ANC will deal with the disparate voices in its "broad church" -- including the Communisty Party and the labor unions -- and the conflicting demands of its various vocal constituencies, some of whom had promised war if Zuma were convicted.

But the biggest question of all, to paraphrase one of Mbeki's favorite passages from Yeats: Will the center hold when [other things] fall apart?

These are early days, but so far, it has held, but the resignations leave open the question of whether the ANC has a sufficently capable team to step in behind a leader, Motlanthe, who has no expereince running governement.

The president went "gently into that good night," and even opposition pols are insisting the process, though ugly, was democratic. A political party with the right to elect or remove its leader did so. And some have raised the question of whether this is the beginning of a downward slide into the pattern of other liberation movements that conflated the party and the state, acting in its own interests above those of the people. Others ask if it's the beginning of a fresh start for a young democracy.