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S. Africa's Mbeki faces vocal dissent

At the ANC gathering, thousands of delegates supporting his rival Jacob Zuma for party chief jeer at him.

December 17, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

POLOKWANE, SOUTH AFRICA — South African President Thabo Mbeki received a stinging rebuff Sunday from supporters of his bitter rival, Jacob Zuma, in the lead-up to a crucial leadership vote at the national conference of the ruling African National Congress.

Moments after Mbeki's speech, his last chance to win over support, thousands of delegates signaled their disapproval by standing up and singing Zuma's trademark song, "Umshini Wami," which loosely translates as "Bring Me My Machine (Gun)."

Mbeki, who is also the party president, warned the delegates that disunity and corruption was threatening to destroy the ANC, which is facing its ugliest leadership contest in decades.

"Certain negative and completely unacceptable tendencies have emerged within our movement, which threaten the very survival of the ANC as the trusted servant of the people it has been for 96 years," Mbeki said.

Results of a vote by 6,000 delegates are expected today. Mbeki is barred from seeking reelection when his term as the nation's president expires in 2009, but he wants to retain his post as party chief in order to choose his successor.

Zuma, known as JZ in the party, has emerged as front-runner in today's vote, and would be Mbeki's likely successor as national president should he win.

Mbeki sacked Zuma as deputy president of the country in 2005 amid corruption allegations related to a multibillion-dollar arms deal in which he may still be charged. Last year, he was acquitted of rape.

In a veiled jibe at his rival, Mbeki said that for some, getting a party leadership job was a way to get rich and take kickbacks in return for contracts.

"These are people who abuse their positions in government consciously, purposefully and systematically to engage in corrupt practice and self-enrichment. They engage in criminal and amoral activities driven by the hunger for personal gain acquired at the expense of the poor of the country," Mbeki said.

As party president and deputy, Mbeki and Zuma were seated next to each other on the conference stage and, for the most part, each pointedly ignored the other.

Senior party figures had to call repeatedly for calm during the conference as the raucous pro-Zuma camp sang, danced and jeered. As the conference began, thousands stood and rolled their hands in the air -- a gesture calling for change.

Amid whistles and interjections, party Treasurer Mendi Msimang, who is close to Mbeki, called vainly for an end to the disruptions, warning they would bring international disrepute to the ruling party.

In recent days, Mbeki has appeared defensive and shaken by the depth of opposition, complaining in interviews that he had no idea people were dissatisfied, since nobody ever told him.

In a 2 1/2 -hour speech at the conference, Mbeki accused his opponents of spreading lies. "Over the years we have seen the persistent propagation of outright falsehoods intended to discredit our leadership," he said. "This is the practice that . . . is entirely foreign to our movement -- the practice of untruths, of resort to dishonest means and deceit to achieve a particular goal."

He rejected accusations that he had centralized power and did not tolerate dissent.

One Zuma supporter, Godfrey Mhaleni, 34, said his camp had succeeded in embarrassing Mbeki.

"Definitely he felt humiliated," Mhaleni said. "We wanted to show him that we are tired of him and definitely he should give someone else a chance. He was supposed to have handed over power.

"We want to see the changes that Jacob Zuma will bring in."

Nontombi Mabinbisa, 44, with the Mbeki camp, said it would be disastrous for the party and the country were Zuma to win. "If Jacob Zuma can win this election, the whole of South Africa will die because these people are not there for the people on the ground, who are suffering."

She said it was wrong to display such open rejection of Mbeki at the conference.

"I just felt so angry that they showed him they don't want him to be president. He [Mbeki] felt very painful because he's worried about the people, and what will happen to them if this person wins."

--

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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