JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A leading South African politician said last Wednesday that he and other members of the governing African National Congress (ANC) may break away to form a new opposition group.
Mosiuoa Lekota’s announcement broadcast live on national TV reflects growing concern among South Africans about the future of the party that led the fight to end apartheid in 1994 and has governed the country since.
Lekota accused main ANC leaders of being undemocratic, fanning ethnic tensions and making a naked grab for power. He did not say outright that a new party would be formed; he said consultations were still under way.
But, he said, “it seems that we are serving ... divorce papers.”
The ANC responded to Lekota’s threats on Tuesday, suspending the former defense minister and his former deputy Mluleki George, according to the Agence France-Presse (AFP).
ANC spokesman Jessie Duarte said Tuesday that Lekota and George — both loyal to former South African President Thabo Mbeki — would also face a disciplinary committee, which could take further action.
There have been rumors that an ANC faction was preparing to form a new party since a rival group led by party leader Jacob Zuma last month forced Mbeki to resign as the nation’s president. Zuma is expected to win next year’s presidential elections despite a possible corruption trial.
Lekota stepped down as defense minister when Mbeki was ousted.
Zuma had told business leaders last week that if the ANC split, the new party would probably be short-lived.
“If it happens, it could be [because of] the anger and die down very quickly,” the South African Press Association quoted him as saying.
But speaking at a public function on Tuesday, Zuma sternly warned that the ANC would “act very decisively to rid the movement of factionalism,” the AFP reported.
“We would like to warn all who intend to join the campaign to undermine and divide the ANC. We will act very decisively to rid the movement of factionalism. History has been extremely unkind to those who break away from the ANC,” he said.
He branded Lekota, George and their allies as “dissidents” whose patterns of behavior are “charlatan.”
Zuma and other party leaders planned to meet yesterday, after the Banner’s press deadline, to discuss the suspension and set a date for the disciplinary hearing, party spokesman Ishmael Mnisi said.
If Lekota were to form a new party, it would have little time to mount a real challenge to the overwhelmingly popular ANC before the next election, expected to take place in early 2009. But emergence of a new party would likely increase concerns about whether the ANC was capable of fulfilling its promises to take the country to prosperity and greater democracy.
Lekota said last week that hundreds of ANC members across the country were already leaving to join established opposition parties.
“I have said to my comrades, we cannot leave the African National Congress. We are the African National Congress because we are committed to the policies and principles of the ANC,” he said. “The current leadership have shown that they are not ANC.”
Lekota said that while Zuma was the “legitimate” leader of the ANC, he was “leading the ANC away from its policies.”
Also regarding Zuma, Lekota spoke of ANC leaders who “stand on public platforms singing songs that advocate violence.” Zuma is known for performing “Bring Me My Machine Gun,” an apartheid-era protest song, after court appearances in his corruption case.
Lekota also decried T-shirts “printed with tribalist slogans, decorated with the face of some senior members of the ANC.” Zulu supporters of Zuma, who is Zulu, have celebrated his tribe in T-shirt slogans and chants.
“Tribalism is the most serious danger to our country and to our people,” Lekota said.
He accused the ANC leadership of turning its back on its democratic traditions in its eagerness to elevate Zuma despite the corruption accusations he has faced.
He said the leadership had violated the principle of equality before the law by calling for a political solution to the charges against Zuma.
ANC members must find a way “to strengthen democracy in this country,” Lekota said.
The ANC is Africa’s oldest liberation movement and presents its history since its founding in 1912 as an unbroken chain, first of dedicated opposition to apartheid, then commitment to building a democratic, developed multiracial society.
But it has always been a broad tent, so tensions were inevitable among its diverse elements — whites and blacks, communists and entrepreneurs, leftists and traditionalists, those exiled during the apartheid years and those who struggled at home.
A radical element that emerged in 1959 broke away altogether, in part because of a belief that whites had too much influence in the ANC. That group, led by Robert Sobukwe, formed the Pan-Africanist Congress.
Material from the Agence France-Presse was used in this report.
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