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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 June 2005, 16:32 GMT 17:32 UK
Zuma: Mbeki's toughest decision
By Justin Pearce
BBC News, Johannesburg

South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma
Zuma's sacking was not an easy decision for Mbeki

South African President Thabo Mbeki's decision to sack his deputy, Jacob Zuma, was one of his toughest political calls.

Was he to retain a popular member of his government, or to send out a firm signal against corruption?

In the end, it was clean government that won the day, attracting widespread praise for the president.

[Shaik trial] raised questions of conduct that would be inconsistent with expectations that attend those who hold public office
Thabo Mbeki
Yet in South Africa, the decision has not been universally welcomed.

In his address to a joint sitting of parliament, Mr Mbeki took pains to make clear his responsibilities as president in a case that is unprecedented in South Africa's 11 years of democracy.

Careful wording

He emphasised the need to respect the presumption of Mr Zuma's innocence, while recognising that the verdict in the trial of Mr Zuma's adviser, Schabir Shaik, had "raised questions of conduct that would be inconsistent with expectations that attend those who hold public office."

Thabo Mbeki
Mbeki has done his best to minimise the repercussions
"He had to be aware of the impact that his announcement would make," political analyst Sipho Seepe said.

Mr Mbeki's careful wording seems to have softened the personal blow to Mr Zuma, who later told journalists: "I believe he has taken this decision not because he believes I am guilty of any crime but because of considerations relating to the constraints within which government operates."

The ANC and its alliance partners - the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) - have been deeply divided over the question of Mr Zuma's future, Cosatu and the ANC Youth League recently coming out strongly in support of the former deputy president.

But the ANC's first official reaction appeared to be an attempt to close ranks.

"The ANC reaffirms that the deputy president and the entire leadership of the alliance accept and support the decision of the president," said an ANC statement that must have been drafted with prior knowledge of Mr Mbeki's announcement.

Damage control

The time-lag of 12 days between Mr Shaik's conviction and Mr Zuma's sacking suggests that the deputy president did not go easily or willingly.

At the same time, Mr Zuma's allies in the trade unions and among youth organisations have been rallying in his support, putting Mr Mbeki under immense pressure.

While we are naturally deeply saddened that a person who played such a major contribution... had to come to this point in his life and career, we fully support the president in the difficult times
Nelson Mandela
The president is thought to have spent the past few days doing what he does best: working behind the scenes to minimise the negative repercussions from his decision.

How successful he has been has yet to be seen.

One of Mr Zuma's most ardent supporters - Zwelinzima Vavi, secretary-general of the Congress of South African Trade Unions - said he was "devastated" about the decision, but his reaction was more subdued than some of his earlier remarks.

South African Youth Congress members in Durban demonstrated in support of Mr Zuma, and the South African Student Congress described President Mbeki's decision as "a hard stone to swallow".

But the ANC Youth League, Mr Zuma's most powerful constituency, had not reacted by the end of Tuesday afternoon.

Mr Zuma is unlikely to make a comeback in government before Mr Mbeki is due to step down in 2009.

But analysts say he may be able to retain support within the ANC and position himself to return to national office in the future.

Africa's hope

Mr Mbeki's decision was made more urgent by the fact that he is due to lead an African delegation to the G8 summit in the UK early in July.

As a representative of a continent trying hard to shake off a reputation for sleazy governance, Mr Mbeki had to move fast and to move decisively.

For Professor John Stremlau of the University of the Witwatersrand, Mr Mbeki's announcement "reaffirms South Africa as Africa's last great hope".

"This will stand very well with the international community, with business, with the G8, but it was directed at South Africans," Professor Stremlau said.

Jail term for corrupt Zuma aide
08 Jun 05 |  Africa
Zuma: Bad days for Mr Nice Guy
07 Jun 05 |  Africa
Guilty verdict in SA graft case
02 Jun 05 |  Africa
Country profile: South Africa
17 May 05 |  Country profiles

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