South Africa's Ruling Party on the Verge of Splitting Up

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Alexander Joe / AFP / Getty

ANC (African National Congress) Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe

The aftershocks of South Africa's presidential power shift continued to reverberate Friday, as the ruling African National Congress (ANC) appeared on the verge of a split. In an open letter to the secretary general of the organization that Nelson Mandela led during the decades-long struggle to overthrow apartheid, the party's former national chairman Mosiuoa (Terror) Lekota appeared to declare a schism. Lekota, a loyalist of ousted President Thabo Mbeki, was thrown out of the party leadership in last December's bitter showdown with the supporters of a rival faction led by Jacob Zuma and quit his post as Defense Minister two weeks ago when Mbeki was asked to stand down. In a letter published in the media, Lekota accused the party's new leadership of "excesses," "arrogance" and "delinquent behaviour."

"This state of affairs leaves me and many other comrades, no doubt, with a clear sense that our membership to the organisation is an endorsement of practices that are dangerous to the democracy that many people in our country struggled to bring into being," wrote Lekota. He asked whether he was "correct" in concluding that "the organisation is no longer pursuing the original policies of the ANC."

The reply was swift and brutal. Jeff Radebe, a member of the ANC's National Executive Committee (NEC) published his own open letter, in which he wrote, "Put bluntly, you and those who share your views are giving notice to leave the ANC." Lekota was free to do so, Radebe added, and if he did, he would join the ranks of "people [who] could no longer subject themselves to the discipline of the organisation. As such, they either had to leave voluntarily or be expelled." For good measure, Radebe added that while in office, Lekota had abused his position and had reduced the NEC "to an animal farm" — and accused him of insulting Mandela. Lekota's behavior, he said, had been "to say the least, un-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," wrote Radebe. "Remember that the ANC, as an institution, will stay forever while individuals like yourselves will go."

Such vitriol is the most public confirmation to date that the ANC is irrevocably divided. The two camps are split between supporters of Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela as President in 1998, and Zuma, sacked by Mbeki from his post as Deputy President in 2005 after Zuma's financial adviser, Shabir Shaik, was convicted of bribing Zuma in relation to a $10 billion arms deal. Zuma was later charged with corruption and rape but was acquitted of the rape charge in 2006 and managed last month to have the corruption case against him thrown out for the second time. When the judge dismissing the case against Zuma criticized what he called "baleful political interference" in the justice system — a clear reference to Mbeki — Zuma's supporters, who had wrested control of the ANC at its annual conference last December, took it as a cue to force Mbeki to step down before the end of his term next year.

While the ANC has undoubtedly been damaged by the infighting, its dominance of South African politics is so complete that Zuma's ascendency to South Africa's highest office is all but assured. The party has ruled the country since the end of apartheid in 1994, and in the last election, in 2004, the party won almost 70% of the vote, compared with 12% for the opposition Democratic Alliance. Should Lekota and other Mbeki loyalists form a rival party, they would have a slim chance of making a serious dent in that lead without the ANC's formidable political machine and brand. (It's far from clear that Mbeki would even support such a move.) Nevertheless, such an unprecedented challenge to the ANC would reinforce the dramatic decline in the stature of a party that was once the peerless leader of righteous African revolution.

Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC member of Parliament who resigned in 2001 in protest against the party leadership's efforts to frustrate a parliamentary investigation into the arms deal, lays the blame squarely on Mbeki's aloof and autocratic leadership style. "Mbeki has been enormously destructive," he says. "The intrigue, the almost Leninist way he ruled, the level of deviousness, was quite tragic. There was a vibrant, collective culture of discussion and debate in the ANC, a real intellectual integrity, and he destroyed that." In the end, Mbeki presided over a "regression in Africa's proudest democracy that seeps into some of those stereotypes of African big men. It also doesn't send a great signal to other countries in Africa that are trying to build democracy and progress."

Few expect much improvement in the ANC's internal political culture under the new leadership. Zuma, who never finished high school, has little to say on policy questions, and his integrity is clouded by Shaik's conviction. Moreover, there is every indication that, having bested Mbeki at his own game, Zuma's clique will continue to employ antidemocratic methods. "The situation is not irretrievable now," says Feinstein, "but I worry that five years of Zuma may get us a lot closer to that."