ANC in meltdown as third of cabinet walk out

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The Independent Online

A third of the South African cabinet resigned today, including the respected Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, setting nerves on edge in the continent's economic powerhouse, and deepening the worst political crisis since the end of apartheid.

Ten ministers, the Deputy President and the man charged with keeping a handle on the 2010 World Cup budget all handed in their notice, defying calls from the ANC leader, Jacob Zuma, to stay put and ensure a smooth transition after the ousting of President Thabo Mbeki.

South Africa has been staggering from one political drama to the next since Mr Mbeki was accused of meddling in a long-running corruption case against his rival Mr Zuma, prompting the ANC to demand his removal from office at the weekend.

Yesterday's mass resignations sent jitters through the South African stock markets and the rand fell almost 3 per cent, as investors worried about the exit of Mr Manuel, who has been Finance Minister for 11 years and presided over a period of prodigious economic expansion. The fact that his deputy and 2010 World Cup pointman, Jabulani Moleketi, was resigning with him only exacerbated fears.

The ANC hastily convened a press conference in Johannesburg, where its secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, was at pains to reassure the country that Mr Manuel was going nowhere. "He's ready to serve, he's waiting for the next command," Mr Mantashe said. And in Washington, where he was on an official visit, the Finance Minister himself declared that he was happy to work for the new head of state. "The deputy minister [Mr Moleketi] and I did this on the basis of principle," Mr Manuel told reporters in Washington, where he was to chair a panel discussion on ethics. "Unequivocally, I am happy to serve a new head of state."

By this time, the shaken markets had recovered. The business community is particularly concerned about the likely coronation of Mr Zuma when the country goes to the polls in April, as he owes his rise to staunch support from the South African Communist Party and the trade unions.

Mr Manuel is seen as something of a guarantee that economic policies will not veer wildly to the left so the way the initial news of the resignations came out was something of a public relations disaster for the Zuma camp. Although Mr Manuel looks set to return, the ANC said six ministers who have resigned have not indicated whether they will come back to serve under the new leadership. And the opposition Democratic Alliance was quick to jump on the resignations as proof of how the ANC was focused on personal power struggles at the expense of running the country.

"That the ANC is willing to sacrifice them and risk our country's stability in order to wreak revenge on the President, speaks volumes about its lack of commitment to stable government," said the opposition leader, Helen Zille. "It is clear that behind the display of unity, there is deep dissatisfaction." The ANC confirmed that its deputy leader Kgalema Motlanthe, described across the political spectrum as a voice of reason, would be South Africa's interim president, pending confirmation by parliament tomorrow.

Opposition parties gave a cautious welcome to Mr Motlanthe's nomination. "Over the past year Mr Motlanthe has been one of the few voices of reason in the ANC," said Patricia de Lille, leader of the small Independent Democrats. Archbishop Desmond Tutu – considered South Africa's moral conscience – described him as "a conciliatory person who appears to want to act out of integrity".

Mr Zuma cannot take over the presidency because although he is party leader, he is not a member of parliament. He is believed to want a mandate at next April's polls, rather than imposing himself via the party.

His feud with Mr Mbeki – which exploded into the open when Mr Zuma was fired as deputy president in 2005 – has ripped the monolithic ANC in two and there were signs yesterday that the saga would rumble on.

The outgoing President announced he would go to the Constitutional Court to appeal against the ruling that triggered his demise – that of Judge Chris Nicholson that he interfered in Mr Zuma's corruption case.

In documents filed with the court, Mr Mbeki described the ruling as "vexatious, scandalous and prejudicial" and noted it had already cost him his job and damaged his reputation. He had not been able to defend himself in court against the allegations, which was "unfair and unjust".

"Unless the errors in the judgment are rectified immediately by means of a judgment, I will continue to suffer and may even suffer great harm," he has concluded.