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Friday, 27 April, 2001, 16:23 GMT 17:23 UK
Who's doing the plotting in South Africa?
President Mbeki
President Mbeki feels his position is under threat
Three senior leaders of South Africa's African National Congress are being investigated for allegedly plotting to unseat President Thabo Mbeki. South African journalist Justice Malala tries to unravel what lies behind the in-fighting.

African National Congress (ANC) leaders used to cynically refer to it as the "alliance industry".

Almost daily, after the unbanning of the organisation in 1990 and the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, there would be a story in the media about an imminent split in the ANC's alliance with the Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions.


This propensity to believe in conspiracy theories lays Mbeki open to deception

The alliance - forged in the 1950s and built around the ideal of non-racialism and freedom - had survived the imprisonment of its leaders, banning orders, exile and persecution inside the country.

Despite such a long history, analysts continued to be obsessed with the idea of a split in the alliance.

Another variation of the theme was an imminent split between the ANC's formerly exiled leadership and the so-called "internals" - those who had led the ANC structures inside South Africa through mass protests, church movements and acts of civil disobedience in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The theory went that tensions between these two groups would be so great that one would break away from the ANC and start a new political party. It never happened.

Every time an ANC leader was questioned about tensions between the various, complicated strands (communist, unionist, nationalist, non-racialist, exile, internal) of the ANC, they would answer, in almost exactly the same words: "The unity of the movement comes first for any dedicated cadre".

Unity threat

But Security Minister Steve Tshwete put that unity on a knife-edge by naming three of the most popular and easily recognised leaders in the ANC as conspirators in a plot that might lead to the harming of President Thabo Mbeki.

Cyril Ramaphosa in the 1980s
Cyril Ramaphosa was a key figure in the negotiations to end apartheid
It was an extraordinary accusation - one that had all sectors of South African society reacting with shock.

The accused include Cyril Ramaphosa, a former secretary-general of the ANC who helped negotiate the end of apartheid and chaired the assembly that wrote South Africa's Constitution.

The others being investigated are Tokyo Sexwale, an ANC member jailed for 13 years under apartheid, who later became premier of Gauteng Province, and Mathews Phosa, a former ANC guerrilla who became premier of Mpumalanga Province.

All three have their roots in the internal rather than the exiled wing of the ANC.

Paranoia

There are three issues that arise out of the investigation into the three men.

The first is why Mr Mbeki should believe such allegations against some of the most respected of his ANC colleagues.

Tokyo Sexwale
Tokyo Sexwale was the premier of South Africa's most populous province
Since his ascension to the presidency 22 months ago, his image as a self-assured, polished leader has been quickly eroded, although he continues to be a formidable force on the continent and in world politics.

First, his questioning of the scientific basis to the assertion that the HIV virus leads to Aids - which affects nearly five million South Africans - made him the butt of jokes in diplomatic circles around the world.

It dented him irreparably.

Then his policy of following "quiet diplomacy" instead of condemning his neighbour, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, left the world confused. Crucially, the criticism left him bruised and he felt himself a man under siege.

Not that Mr Mbeki is a man who does not believe in conspiracy theories.

His assertion at the ANC parliamentary caucus late last year that he was a target of a CIA campaign to discredit him was only believed by the most die-hard of his fellow leaders.

This propensity to believe in conspiracy theories lays the president open to deception.

Challengers

The ANC goes to conference next December, when it will decide whether to elect a new leader or retain Mr Mbeki.

At the moment, there is no one who even comes close to him in stature within the ANC.

His closest rival, Cyril Ramaphosa, was still licking his wounds from the last time that the president managed to outmanoeuvre him.

Mr Ramaphosa is the only one in the ANC at the moment who could have posed a challenge. It would appear that President Mbeki is leaving nothing to chance and has decided to scare off his opponents, or clearly show that he will brook no challenge in the future.

Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela
Mbeki became leader of the ANC just over two years ago
The disturbing thing is that intelligence and police structures are now being used to fight leadership battles inside the party.

Another interesting aspect of the affair is how the exile-internal divisions of the past are starting to show themselves again.

Mr Ramaphosa belongs to the internal leadership, and is still largely supported by those who participated in the internal structures, but whose numbers are now swelled by many of the exile group disappointed by Mr Mbeki.

Cosatu has, in the past few years, been increasingly critical of the Mbeki regime. This latest episode is likely to increase the divide.

It is not yet time to rush back to the theories that characterised the "alliance industry".

However, by December next year when the ANC's branch delegates arrive for their conference, it may not seem such a preposterous idea after all.

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See also:

26 Apr 01 | Africa
Row deepens over ANC 'plot'
26 Apr 01 | Africa
Top ANC men deny 'plot'
22 Feb 99 | Africa
Ramaphosa resigns
20 Dec 97 | Despatches
Ramaphosa tops ANC executive poll
16 Mar 98 | Africa
Hani Truth hearing resumes
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