PRETORIA, South Africa — President Thabo
Mbeki said last week he has no plans to step down despite losing the
leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) to a left-leaning
rival in party elections this week.
Mbeki said there would be no change in government policy even though the 86-member ANC National Executive Committee lurched to the left, with trusted lieutenants like the country’s deputy president, defense minister and senior cabinet ministers ousted.
“I would expect the government to serve its term until the elections in 2009,” Mbeki told a news conference at his residence in Pretoria, his first public comments since ANC delegates snubbed him in favor of Jacob Zuma.
As ANC leader, Zuma is in line to be its presidential candidate in 2009, and likely win the election given the party’s broad support among South Africans. But a pending bribery case against him could mean political turmoil for Zuma and the ANC.
The country’s top prosecutor said last Thursday he had enough evidence to charge Zuma and would announce in the new year the next step in the investigation.
Mokotedi Mpshe is investigating allegations that in the 1990s, Zuma accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from the French company Thint to stop investigations into a multibillion-dollar arms deal with the government. The contracts were suspected of being secured through bribes.
Mbeki said there should be no political interference in the case against Zuma.
“We have all insisted that the law must take its course,” he said, adding that Zuma should be “given his opportunity in court to state his case and prove his innocence.”
Mbeki fired Zuma as the country’s deputy president in 2005 after Zuma’s financial adviser was convicted of trying to elicit the bribe. Charges against Zuma were thrown out last year on a technicality.
Zuma, who denies the charges, complained that he was being tried in the media.
“My problem was, ‘Why are these things being said in public?’ If I have a case to answer, then take me to court,” he told a news conference.
Last Friday, Mbeki praised Zuma for appealing for unity in a speech before the ANC national convention.
“President Jacob Zuma spoke for all of us,” Mbeki said. “He gave a summary of the way forward, to which all members of the ANC need to respond positively.”
Zuma promised to work well with Mbeki and sought to allay fears that he would veer sharply to the left under pressure from trade unions, poor blacks and communists who backed his leadership bid. Zuma had rallied ANC members dissatisfied with Mbeki’s market-oriented policies, which have brought steady economic growth but failed to lift the majority from poverty.
Mbeki is barred by constitutional term limits from running again for president of South Africa. If he had defeated Zuma in the race for ANC leader, he would have been in position to pick his successor.
But with Zuma allies sweeping the top six ANC posts in last Tuesday’s vote, Mbeki’s influence within the party is in question.
Some Mbeki loyalists did win seats on the ANC national executive committee in a vote last Thursday, including Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, who commands huge respect among the business community for masterminding the country’s economic growth.
Chief ANC strategist Joel Netshitenze, who himself only narrowly won a seat, said the change in ANC leadership should not destabilize the government in the coming months.
Former President Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie Madikezela-Mandela, topped the list of national executive body members with 2,845 votes among the 4,000 ANC delegates when the results were announced early last Friday.
She drew more support in last Thursday’s voting than sitting Cabinet members, and over 500 votes more than Zuma received earlier in the week in the race for party president.
Madikezela-Mandela, whose support base is mainly among the left-wing — similar to Zuma’s — emerged to the political forefront in recent weeks to try to mediate between Mbeki and Zuma.
Madikezela-Mandela was for decades an anti-apartheid icon while her then-husband was in jail. In 2003, she was convicted in a fraud case related to ANC Women’s League finances, but has remained a charismatic figure.