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South Africa's ruling ANC at brink of split

Supporters of former President Mbeki and backers of current party leader Zuma trade bitter barbs.

October 04, 2008|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — The fact that the ruling African National Congress has a deep-seated sense of moral superiority is not entirely surprising. Led by Nelson Mandela, it was at the forefront of the campaign to bring down the apartheid system.

Sometimes, its sense of itself can be a little over the top. Party leader Jacob Zuma has been quoted as saying it's the only party that God wants to rule South Africa. The ANC will rule "until Jesus comes back," he said. The worst possible epithet one party member can use against another is to accuse him or her of "un-ANC" behavior.

But the ugly public wrangling that has followed former South African President Thabo Mbeki's humiliating dismissal two weeks ago has made the ANC look just like, well, any other political party. A bitter spat between rival camps exploded onto the front pages of South African newspapers Friday, when one party member rebuked another for charging that the party had become a threat to democracy.

The acrimony has brought the ANC, formed in 1912 to improve the lives of South African blacks, to the brink of a split between factions backing Mbeki and Zuma, whose supporters forced the president to step down just a few months before his term was to expire.

"Comrade vs. Comrade" was the front page banner headline in Friday's daily Star newspaper, which ran the texts of two acrimonious open letters by ANC heavyweights.

One, from Mbeki ally and former Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota to ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe, a Zuma supporter, said the new leaders had undermined the party's policies, culture, values, history and commitment to the people.

"This state of affairs leaves me and many other comrades no doubt, with a clear sense that our membership of the organization is an endorsement of practices that are dangerous to the democracy that many people in our country struggled to bring into being," Lekota said.

Even though he was careful to avoid speaking of a split in the party, analysts regarded his letter as a move to expose a potential division.

Transport Minister Jeff Radebe said in response that Lekota's letter amounted to notice that he and his allies were planning to leave the ANC.

"To you and all your cronies, we at the ANC say that what you are trying to demonstrate to the country is nothing but the last kicks of a dying horse," Radebe said in his own letter.

Zuma is expected to assume the nation's presidency after elections next year. An ally, Kgalema Motlanthe, has taken over as caretaker, but the party has launched a purge of government jobs. The health minister was removed and the premier of Gauteng province stepped down amid reports that he and two other provincial leaders were likely to be axed.

Opponents complained that Mbeki was aloof and intolerant of criticism. They regarded his policies as too pro-business, criticized his failure to improve the lot of the poor and abhorred his failure to act more urgently to fight AIDS.

Mbeki's allies are deeply concerned about Zuma's legal problem -- corruption, fraud and racketeering charges that were thrown out on a technicality last month. Prosecutors have appealed.

The former president's supporters were also disturbed by attacks on the judiciary and threats by Zuma's allies in the ANC Youth League to "kill for Zuma" if need be. ANC Youth League President Julius Malema recently threatened to crush any ANC members who left the organization to form a rival party.

Senior party members have reportedly confirmed plans for a split and are trying to determine whether there is enough support for a rival movement. Mbeki's support amounted to 40% of the 4,000 delegates at last year's national conference.

The ANC controls about 70% of Parliament, and the opposition is fragmented. Many argue that the best thing for democracy in South Africa would be an ANC split, if it spawned a big opposition party that would make the ANC more accountable.

Helen Zille, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, said an ANC split would strengthen democracy.

"The dominant party is beginning to fracture and the opposition is beginning to coalesce around common core values," Zille wrote in a weekly online letter. "But whether there is a breakaway now or not, one thing is certain: The ANC's divisions will deepen in the years ahead and its disintegration, from a position of almost complete hegemony for the past 14 years, has begun."

--

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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