Why South Africa's Mbeki Resigned

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Desmond Kwande / AFP / Getty

South African President Thabo Mbeki.

Thabo Mbeki called time on his presidency on Saturday, after South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) called on him to resign — opening the way for his rival and successor as party leader, Jacob Zuma, to be voted in as President despite allegations of corruption against him. ANC party leaders argued through Friday night over Mbeki's fate, announcing early on Saturday afternoon their unanimous decision to remove him from office following allegations that he had used the country's law-enforcement system to undermine Zuma's chances of succeeding him. ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe said in a statement that the decision had been taken in order to "heal the rifts" within the party caused by the bruising power struggle between Mbeki and Zuma, that was finally resolved in Zuma's favor last December. Later in the day, Mbeki's office issued a statement saying that the President would "step down after all constitutional requirements have been met," an act of capitulation that could avert political crisis ahead of a general election that is set to take place next year.

With cabinet members loyal to Mbeki likely also to resign, analysts predict that parliament would most likely convene to elect a caretaker government until elections can be held next year. Some suggested that Zuma, who is not a member of parliament, would not serve in a transitional administration and would most likely assume power only after the elections. Although Mbeki has been a lame duck ever since Zuma wrested the ANC leadership from him at last December's party leadership conference, Saturday's move to accelerate Mbeki's ouster has raised fears of growing instability in Africa's largest economy, with bitter divisions within the ANC likely to grow more rancorous. While Zuma's supporters have long claimed that their leader is the victim of a political conspiracy orchestrated by Mbeki, on Saturday it was Mbeki's supporters who decried the party's harsh treatment of the departing leader. "This has been a brutal internal coup, almost," Mbeki biographer William Gumede told a South African radio station.

Mbeki's ouster is certainly a victory for the more hardline element among Zuma's supporters, who had been calling for the President's head ever since a judge last Friday threw out corruption charges against Zuma on procedural grounds. Most damaging to Mbeki were Judge Chris Nicholson's remarks that he found Zuma's complaints of political interference in his case to be plausible. Nicholson made it clear that his judgment in no way exonerates Zuma, but he also accused Mbeki and members of his cabinet of having improperly intervened to ensure that Zuma was prosecuted. "It's quite clear that the purpose of the decision is to prevent the NPA [National Prosecuting Authority] from prosecuting Zuma," Steven Friedman, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy in Johannesburg said in a radio interview on Saturday. But it was also about revenge.

Julius Malema, the vociferous new president of the ANC Youth League, railed against Mbeki, calling him a "dictator," and predicting that he would be removed over the weekend. But for all the venom of his supporters, Zuma himself was not among those calling for Mbeki's head. Instead, he had called for Mbeki to serve out the remainder of his term, in order to ensure a smooth political transition. Zuma told his party that it would be a waste of energy to "beat a dead snake," and instead appealed to them to focus on healing internal divisions. Malema's response: "Fine ... we are no longer beating it and we are burying this snake this weekend."

Mbeki, who had hoped to make a dignified exit from office and retain some of his legacy as a peace broker on the continent — where he has mediated conflicts in the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo and, most recently, Zimbabwe — has instead faced a string of humiliating defeats, and leaves office much diminished. The ANC, too, is likely to be weakened by its decision, which also seemed to suggest that Zuma is not necessarily in control of the coalition of forces within the party that brought him to power.

"This has nothing to do with unity," said opposition Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille. "It has everything to do with settling scores and taking revenge."

Mbeki's autocratic management style and ruthlessness in dealing with his opponents — he deftly outmaneuvered a more popular rival, Cyril Ramaphosa, in order to assume the presidency after Nelson Mandela left office in 1999 — has angered many. Nevertheless, the ANC's decision raises a deeper question of just how able Zuma is to control the militants among his supporters, who some fear are now in a position to dictate party policy.

Saturday's decision also diminishes chances that the controversial 1990s arms deal over which Zuma has faced charges, will ever be properly investigated — although its corrosive legacy will live on. In his ruling last week, Judge Nicholson called for a commission of inquiry "to rid our land of this cancer that is devouring the body politic and the reputation for integrity built up so assiduously after the fall of apartheid." Instead, it appears that Zuma will assume the presidency before he ever has his day in court.

(See photos of the violence that has erupted in South Africa this year)