South Africa launched an official inquiry yesterday into charges of spying and abuse of power by senior figures in the African National Congress. The affair has turned into the worst political crisis President Thabo Mbeki has faced since he took over from the revered Nelson Mandela in 1999, and threatens a historic split in the ANC.
The inquiry will look into claims that senior members of the ANC government not only spied for the former apartheid regime, but used their positions in the post-apartheid administration to undermine rivals.
Their supporters say the allegations are an attempt to derail a corruption investigation of Mr Mbeki's deputy, Jacob Zuma, who is accused of accepting a 500,000-rand (£43,000) bribe from a French arms company. The row has split the ANC into two opposing camps ahead of a crucial general election next year, pitting hardline leftwingers such as Mr Zuma and his supporters against the technocratic wing of the party.
Two prominent allies of the Deputy President, ANC veteran Mac Maharaj and Mo Shaik, a senior government official, have accused South Africa's director of public prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, of spying for the apartheid authorities. Mr Ngcuka, previously a senior figure in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated apartheid-era crimes, has vigorously denied the charge. Mr Mbeki's sympathies are thought to lie with the technocrats. He has supported Mr Ngcuka before, insisting the "masses of the people" would not forgive those who made spying allegations, but now appears to be keeping his distance while some of his senior colleagues fight it out.
Apart from the main protagonists, the inquiry is expected to hear from Schabir Shaik, Mr Zuma's self-styled financial adviser, who is facing fraud charges, and possibly from Neil Barnard or Mike Louw, former heads of the apartheid-era National Intelligence Services.
After yesterday's opening, the inquiry, chaired by a former apartheid-era chief justice, Joos Hefer, adjourned until next month to allow lawyers to study security files. These may show whether the allegations against Mr Ngcuka have any documentary basis. But being accused by Mr Zuma, the head of ANC intelligence when the organisation returned to South Africa from exile in 1990, and Mr Maharaj, a former underground leader, means he faces powerful opposition from the party's populists. At last month's annual conference of Cosatu, the trade union wing of the ANC, there were anti-Ngcuka chants and a hero's welcome for Mr Zuma.
The Deputy President has won other political victories which will force Mr Mbeki to handle him carefully. Judge Hefer's inquiry has been widened to include an investigation of the Justice Minister, Penuell Maduna, Mr Ngcuka's superior, also accused of spying for the apartheid regime.
Mr Maduna insists all that is being examined is his role as minister responsible for the national prosecuting authority, to ensure there had been no abuse of the office as a result of "past obligations", a euphemism for apartheid-era spying. The two technocrats' supporters say Mr Ngcuka was investigating Mr Zuma over allegations that he solicited a bribe from the French arms company that won a multi billion-pound arms order from South Africa, and that Mr Maharaj was being examined for corruption while he was transport minister.
The allegations against the director of prosecutions and his chief are seen as a desperate attempt to discredit two men steadfast in fighting corruption in South Africa's elite. Rich businessmen who back the ANC and have been victims of Mr Ngcuka's anti-corruption crusade have lined up behind Mr Zuma and Mr Maharaj.
Mr Mbeki has so far refused to fire Mr Zuma, despite opposition demands, over the Deputy President's involvement in the arms deal. Although Mr Ngcuka had said he would not prosecute Mr Zuma, he insisted there was a prima facie case against the Deputy President, a decision Mr Zuma said had left a cloud hanging over his head and possibly destroyed his own aspirations to succeed President Mbeki.
Whatever the outcome of the Hefer inquiry, the President will be forced to take tough decisions against members of his government just as he prepares to fight South Africa's third democratic election. If Mr Zuma's claims about Mr Ngcuka are not backed by the commission, the Deputy President will be left exposed, and Mr Mbeki might finally be forced to act against him.