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Sunday, 28 September 2008

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South Africa ponders life after Mbeki

South Africa's political landscape is changing faster than anyone anticipated.

The speed of events over the past few days has inevitably created an atmosphere of uncertainty, and some apprehension.

The sudden resignation of President Thabo Mbeki has drawn a welter of calls for clear and strong leadership, lest the country finds itself on the path to becoming "a banana republic", to quote the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.


Supporters of ousted South African President Thabo Mbeki, show their support outside Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday Sept 23, 2008. (AP Photo)

However, change has been on the cards since the historic African National Congress (ANC) national conference in Polokwane last December.

Thabo Mbeki, seeking a third term as party leader, was defeated by his long-time rival, Jacob Zuma - the man whom Mr Mbeki had sacked as South Africa's Deputy President in 2005.

Polokwane was a watershed, with 4,000 ANC delegates from branches all over the countries exercising their democratic right to force a change of leadership in the party.

After 10 years at the helm of the ruling party, Thabo Mbeki found himself rejected in favour of the populist, Jacob Zuma.

Within days of the Polokwane conference, the writing was on the wall for Thabo Mbeki and his allies.

At the ANC's anniversary celebrations in January, the then leader of the party's Youth League, Fikile Mbalula, signalled that the Zuma camp in the ANC was firmly in the ascendancy.

"We are the future. No-one can stop us", he declared.

There has been a decidedly mixed reaction in South Africa to the forced resignation of Thabo Mbeki.

"He was a bad president. He divided our country", said last week's Sunday Times. But many commentators and observers have expressed disquiet at the timing of this political change.

They believe it could leave South Africa vulnerable at a time of turbulence in the world economy.

An analysis by Standard Chartered Bank says that "with the economic slowdown and electricity crisis, South Africa already faces a trying time".

"Emigration levels from the country are the highest they have been since the early 1990's.

Both business and consumer confidence have slumped," it continues.

"While investors may welcome greater certainty in terms of the future political outlook, a more volatile political transition is likely to cost the country dearly," the bank says.

It was Thabo Mbeki's stewardship of the South African economy that has arguably been his greatest achievement.

During his presidency, the country has enjoyed its longest period of steady economic growth.

There are fears that if Jacob Zuma becomes President after next year's elections, he may be beholden to some of his allies on the political left, such as the Cosatu trade union federation and the South African Communist Party.

They have always been opposed to Mr Mbeki's economic policies, arguing that the poor have been marginalised, and that unemployment remains high.

However, in the short term, there are hopes that the likely acting president, Kgalema Motlanthe, may be the safe pair of hands that the country needs at present.

"Mr Motlanthe has been one of the few voices of reason in the ANC," said Patricia De Lille, the leader of the smaller opposition party, the Independent Democrats.

"We hope he will put the country before the party, and put the lives of ordinary South Africans ahead of party political agendas," she said.

Helen Zille, the leader of the biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, says the current political crisis has highlighted the deep divisions within the ANC.

"President Mbeki's ousting may prove to be the undoing of the ANC's electoral dominance."

The ANC has been stressing the need for a smooth transition.

The confirmed resignation of six cabinet ministers on Tuesday was not the type of news it wanted.

Another eight ministers or deputy ministers have been persuaded to stay, and will, it seems, be re-appointed by the new administration.

 

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