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South African president ousted by rival's backers

Thabo Mbeki's exit clears way for populist Jacob Zuma to take power but leaves the nation in uncertainty.

September 21, 2008|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — South African President Thabo Mbeki was forced from office Saturday, paving the way for rival Jacob Zuma to take power and leaving the country in a state of political and economic uncertainty.

The populist Zuma, expected to take over after parliamentary elections next year, has made several comebacks from near political oblivion: He beat rape charges in 2006 and just more than a week ago managed to have fraud and racketeering charges thrown out on a technicality.

The executive committee of the ruling African National Congress decided to "recall" or depose Mbeki, and a presidential spokesman said Saturday that he had agreed to resign.

Mbeki's departure could presage a major shift in economic policy and the resignation of numerous Mbeki loyalists in the Cabinet. However, the ANC's secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, said Zuma was calling on ministers to stay on for the sake of stability.

A trusted Zuma ally, parliamentary Speaker Baleka Mbete, is expected to be appointed interim president.

Zuma, 66, is president of the ANC, which won 70% of the vote in the last parliamentary election. This month, a judge in his fraud case declared that he was the victim of a conspiracy within the party to block his path to the nation's presidency. That supplied Zuma's supporters in the party with the ammunition to depose Mbeki.

Mbeki, also 66, has presided over a lengthy period of economic growth in South Africa, attracting foreign investment. But few benefits have trickled down to the poor, triggering protests over services in townships across South Africa.

Investors have become used to the idea that Zuma might be the next president since he defeated Mbeki for the presidency of the ANC in December. Mbeki had sacked Zuma as South African vice president in 2005 after Zuma's financial advisor was convicted of soliciting a bribe on his behalf.

This month's judgment did not examine the substance of Zuma's fraud charges, but instead resulted in a dismissal because prosecuting procedures weren't followed. The National Prosecuting Authority has announced that it will appeal the decision.

After winning the party presidency, Zuma embarked on an international campaign to woo business and public opinion by pledging to leave economic policies intact. Investors, however, remain uncertain because Zuma's most powerful supporters in the unions are demanding a major shift to the left at a time when business and consumer confidence have slumped.

Zuma's left-wing allies want to see an end to a set inflation target, and they oppose the balanced budgets that have won Mbeki's government international economic credibility.

Reports in recent days suggest that Finance Minister Trevor Manuel plans to stay on, which would be a major victory for the Zuma camp.

Zuma has also pledged to deal with crime, and increase spending on health and education, but critics say his messages vary according to his audience.

With the ANC bitterly divided, Zuma's supporters see him as the best hope for a shift to policies aimed at poverty reduction and social spending.

The difficulty is that with the economy in a downturn, the growth counted on to provide jobs and boost the poor is unlikely to materialize, leaving little room for a Zuma government to maneuver.

Mbeki, a cool, cerebral figure, had been seen as out of touch with the masses -- except for a short-lived period in the 2004 election campaign when he awkwardly hobnobbed with ordinary folk. One of his mistakes, according to critics, was his failure to address HIV and AIDS with urgency, delaying the introduction of antiretroviral medication.

He was also criticized for his loyalty to Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who has advocated beet root, garlic and lemon juice for HIV patients. She is seen as a likely casualty after Mbeki's exit.

For years, as Zimbabwe imploded, Mbeki chose to support President Robert Mugabe, and the policy of "quiet diplomacy" was widely criticized until he brokered a shaky political deal there.

Zuma, for his part, is a lively, charismatic figure, who dons traditional Zulu outfits and sings and dances to his trademark "Bring Me My Machine Gun" campaign song. But he's been dogged by controversy, particularly over his testimony during his 2006 rape trial, where he said that his accuser, an HIV-positive family friend half his age, wanted sex because she was wearing a knee-length skirt.

He also acknowledged having unprotected sex with the woman, despite knowing her HIV status, and testified that he had a shower afterward to reduce the risk of getting AIDS.

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Jacob Zuma

Zuma, 66, is in line to be South Africa's next president.

Born in the rural Zulu heartland, Zuma lost his father when he was a young boy. His mother worked as a maid in Durban, and by the age of 15 Zuma was doing odd jobs to help her.

He joined the African National Congress in 1959 and became an activist in its guerrilla wing in 1962. He was arrested in 1963 and jailed for 10 years. He left South Africa in 1975 and spent 12 years in exile.

Zuma, now president of the ANC, is extremely popular among the impoverished masses, who believe he understands their struggle.

Source: Associated Press

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