Party split threatens South Africa

Mbeki’s rapid departure caused several resignations from the ANC

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress is denying reports that it will split into rival factions following president Thabo Mbeki’s ouster. But speculation mounted that a splinter group could form in the wake of a week of high-profile party resignations. Those included 11 members of the ANC cabinet, plus Mbhazima Shilowa, premier of Gauteng, the country’s wealthiest province. Several ministers have since returned to the table, but Shilowa says that he cannot support the way the party forced out Mbeki mere months before the end of his term. In Mbeki’s place, newly minted party president Jacob Zuma has installed Kgalema Motlanthe, an ANC politician friendly to both camps. As interim president, Motlanthe will lead South Africa until the next election, when Zuma himself will likely stand for the presidency.

On the surface the political crisis appears to be a straightforward power struggle between Mbeki and Zuma. Not so, says Elke Zuern, an area specialist with Sarah Lawrence College in New York state. “It is about competing visions for South Africa’s future,” she says, noting that influential left-leaning elements, such as the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the country’s Communist party, back Zuma.

Below the surface, the venerable 96-year-old party—an uncomfortable mix of centrists, Communists and trade unionists—is riven by deep divisions over economic and social policy, which Mbeki’s sacking has opened up. Still, for now, a split “is simply not in the cards,” says Anthony Holmes of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. “The group surrounding Mbeki is too small.” But the ANC is no longer a revolutionary liberation movement. As South Africa’s democracy matures, the once-common goal of independence no longer serves to bind.