Mbeki sacks his deputy after judge links him to corruption

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The Independent Online

South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki has fired his deputy, Jacob Zuma, over corruption allegations, saying that his departure was needed to protect the country's young democracy.

South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki has fired his deputy, Jacob Zuma, over corruption allegations, saying that his departure was needed to protect the country's young democracy.

The move comes weeks before the forthcoming G8 meeting in Edinburgh, which will focus on aid to Africa and the need to root out corrupt practices among Africa's ruling elites.

Mr Mbeki stalled for two weeks before making a decision on his number two, after a High Court judge implicated Mr Zuma in a fraud case which led to the imprisonment of the flamboyant businessman Schabir Shaik. Mr Shaik, who served as Mr Zuma's financial adviser, was sentenced to 15 years in jail.

His downfall now appears to have also ended the career of a high-flying politician described as a future South African president, who was a hero of the anti-apartheid campaign and was once imprisoned with Nelson Mandela before going into exile in 1973.

The Shaik trial judgment immediately sparked calls for his resignation, given Judge Squires' damaging finding that the deputy president had maintained a "generally corrupt relationship" with his financial adviser. The affair then became a growing embarrassment to the South African government when, after the verdict, the Deputy President embarked on a campaign to rally support in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to prove his popularity in the party and make it hard for the President to dismiss him. Mr Mbeki unsuccessfully sent emissaries including the former president Nelson Mandela to urge his number two to leave voluntarily.

"I am fully conscious of the fact that the accused in the Schabir Shaik case have given notice of their intention lodge an appeal. I am equally aware that a superior court may overturn the judgment handed down by Justice Squires," said Mr Mbeki in an announcement to a joint sitting of both houses of parliament. "However, as President of the Republic I have come to the conclusion that the circumstances dictate that in the interests of the Honourable Deputy President, the government, our young democratic system, and our country, it would be best to release the Honourable Jacob Zuma from his responsibilities as Deputy President of the Republic and member of the cabinet."

In his valedictory speech, Mr Zuma, who was appointed to the position in 1999 and retained in 2004 after the ANC won a landslide, said that he "accepted and respected" the decision to fire him.

Mr Zuma also offered to resign his seat in parliament. But he pledged to continue as Mr Mbeki's deputy in the ANC. The ruling party's constitution does not empower Mr Mbeki to fire Mr Zuma from his ANC position. Mr Mbeki's bold decision has been welcomed across the African continent, which is fighting to remake its image in the wake of continuing scandals over governments' use of money and aid.

Ben Kalua, professor of economics at the University of Malawi, said: "Mbeki has always dilly-dallied in acting on governance issues in countries like Zimbabwe, but this action on Zuma today is in line with Nepad's [New Partnership for Africa's Development] flagship, the peer review programme... it also sends a good signal to the upcoming G8 summit in Scotland and sets the pace to other countries in Nepad."

Kwamchetsi Makokha, deputy managing editor of the Standard newspaper in Nairobi, said that what Mr Mbeki had done was "a good thing for those who insist on good governance and showing that Africa can govern itself properly".

Mr Mandela backed Mr Mbeki's decision, saying that he "fully supported the President in these difficult times in the life of our government", while other South African opposition parties, business associations and civic society groups all backed Mr Mbeki, saying he had demonstrated commitment to transparency and to vigorously tackle corruption.

Mr Zuma might still be personally charged with corruption and could face a jail sentence.