Mbeki Moved On

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

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

And now it’s breath-holding time for South Africa, as the nation comes to grips with the sudden, shock-and-awe removal of its president Thabo Mbeki by his own party.

Mbeki’s credo for the continent was ‘African solutions for African problems.’ Even as he applied the doctrine next door in Zimbabwe, a South African solution to the Mbeki problem was being hatched and 66-year-old Mbeki was deposed with dispatch as the African National Congress (ANC) forced him to resign, accusing him of political interference in the fraud-and-corruption case of his former deputy, Jacob Zuma, who is president of the party.

I ‘d be surprised if anyone saw this coming, given that Zuma, himself, had assured the nation that Mbeki would finish his elected term, due to end in early 2009. But there were worries about the unusual circumstances of what amounted to “two centers of power” represented by Zuma, as the president of the ANC, and Mbeki as the president of the country. But Zuma, who earlier had insisted that there were no two centers of power, confidently urged patience by saying that there was “no point in beating a dead snake” in reference to Mbeki’s government.

The sudden decision to remove the head of the dead snake reminds me of a conversation I had when I first arrived in South Africa in 1997 to begin reporting for NPR. A veteran ANC member warned me there would be limits to my ability to penetrate the ANC’s inner workings. He told me the ANC was the most mercurial of organizations and that it was close to impossible for outsiders to get it. This is clearly one of those moments.

With only a few months left in his presidency, why was Thabo Mbeki kicked to the curb?

The prevailing wisdom suggests that there are some very pissed-off people at the highest levels of the party. A few weeks ago, a judge dismissed, on procedural grounds, a fraud-and-corruption case against Zuma, arising from an alleged bribe involving a government arms procurement deal. The judge strongly hinted that there was political interference in the case.

Earlier, Zuma’s business advisor had been convicted of the bribery charge and was serving time in prison. At the time he was convicted, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) said it had a prima facie case against Zuma, but decided not to prosecute.

It was last December, on the day Zuma trounced Mbeki in the contest for leadership of the party, that NPA announced it now had enough evidence to charge Zuma with fraud, corruption, racketeering and income tax evasion. The war was on, though publicly the principals denied it. A few days after the NPA’s decision, Mbeki was gone.

The arms deal, many believe, is the elephant in the room. Zuma, according to many analysts, is a small fish in the deal. (Can fish and elephants be in the same room?) Even opposition-party members were up in arms over Mbeki’s dismissal, with Bantu Holomisa, leader of the United Democratic Movement (and a former member of the ANC) calling it “an act of political barbarity that threatens to plunge the country into anarchy.”