South Africa Rocked By Leadership Crisis

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - Former South African President Nelson Mandela used a rock concert in central London Sunday to publicly back his successor, Thabo Mbeki, and to play down arguably the most serious political controversy in his country since the end of apartheid.

Mandela told some 20,000 people crammed into Trafalgar Square that Mbeki was an intelligent man with vision "who has united our country," and that the ruling African National Congress had never before been as strong as it is now.

There was "no political crisis in South Africa," the 82-year-old assured the crowd attending a concert marking the seventh anniversary of South Africa's transition to majority rule.

Mbeki's spokesman, Bheki Khumalo, echoed the words on the president's behalf on Monday.

But last week, the country's minister of police unleashed a storm when he told a national Xhosa-language television program that three popular South African figures were involved in a plot to oust and possibly endanger Mbeki.

All three held senior positions in the ANC before pursuing successful careers in business. One of them, Cyril Ramaphosa, was a prime contender to succeed Mandela but lost an internal ANC vote to Mbeki. A senior negotiator of South Africa's process of transition, he is held is such respect internationally he was appointed as one of two weapons inspectors in the Northern Ireland peace process.

The other two, Tokyo Sexwale and Matthews Phosa, were both prominent in the anti-apartheid struggle, and later were elected to powerful provincial premierships.

The three have denied the allegations, which include claims they planned to implicate Mbeki in the 1993 assassination of Chris Hani, a charismatic leader whose premature death removed from Mbeki's path a major contender in the race to succeed Mandela.

The "plot" has been seen in South Africa as an attempt to smear the three men and undercut any possible future political challenge to Mbeki, whose first year in power has drawn widespread criticism.

Mbeki's reputation has been tarnished by an erratic governing style, controversial views on AIDS, a willingness to use race as a stick with which to beat the country's white minority, and a reluctance to condemn the illegal actions of the Zimbabwean dictator, Robert Mugabe.

Ironically, analysts say, the "plot" allegations may have backfired, making a convincing challenge to Mbeki's leadership more likely now than ever.

It has also threatened to split the ruling ANC, whose allied trade union federation, Cosatu, has called on the government to retract the "highly irresponsible" allegations.

Mandela, whose own presidency was hailed as a triumph of helping unify a shattered society, has been caught in the middle of the ensuing row. Although he told the London concert he had faith in Mbeki, he also said in a television interview earlier Sunday that he held the three alleged conspirators "in the highest esteem."

Of Ramaphosa, Mandela had particular praise, calling him an "architect of the modern South Africa" and saying he would be "one of the right people to lead" the country if he returned to politics.

As the party likely to win future elections in Africa's most powerful country for the foreseeable future, the ANC is arguably the most influential political party on the continent.

In terms of its constitution, the party president automatically becomes the country's leader in the event of an election victory. But the position of party president is an internally elected one, the culmination of a transparent process of leadership elections at a local, regional, provincial and national level.

While Mbeki has a lot of support in the ANC, so to do some of his potential rivals. He will have to stand for party election again only in December 2002, but provincial congresses - where delegates to the decisive national congress are chosen - are about to be held.

The crisis has prompted some South African newspapers to question Mbeki's leadership.

In a stinging editorial, the Mail and Guardian examined the president's conduct over the past year and asked whether he was fit to rule.

Of the ANC it said, "a great party is at risk of being turned into the instrument of a man caught up in his own personal rages and with so brittle an ego that he fears evisceration if he retreats on an issue or allows a recognition that he has failed."

The Sunday Times said South Africa's international credibility had been badly tarnished by the plotting allegations, while the Sunday Independent said rather then ending the public discussions about replacing Mbeki, the conspiracy claims had fueled the debate.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow