Zuma: It was painful but Mbeki had to go

ANC leader holds off naming party No 2 as caretaker-president

Jacob Zuma, the ANC leader, has sought to reassure South Africans that there will be a smooth transition of power following the ousting of President Thabo Mbeki, but left them waiting to hear who will act as caretaker-president until next year's elections.

Making his first public appearance since the weekend's dramatic events, Mr Zuma said the decision to recall the sitting President had been "difficult and painful" but stressed: "It had to be taken in the interests of making the country move forward."

For the moment, however, South Africa is treading water. The ANC had been expected to name Mr Mbeki's replacement yesterday, but the announcement has now been delayed until Thursday. Parliamentary sources in Cape Town said the baton would pass to the party's No 2, Kgalema Motlanthe, and not the speaker of parliament, Baleka Mbete, as had been widely reported. But there was no confirmation from the man for whom the caretaker-president will be merely keeping the seat warm.

"We have in cabinet many experienced ministers, including the deputy president of the ANC, Kgalema Motlanthe. I'm convinced that if given that responsibility, he would be equal to the task," was all Mr Zuma would say. Sitting quietly by his side, Mr Motlanthe allowed himself a smile.

The message Mr Zuma wanted to focus on yesterday was that the game of leadership musical chairs was no cause for alarm. "There is no reason for South Africans to be apprehensive... We expect a smooth transition," he said. "We have clearly matured as a democracy and we should all be proud."

Not everyone shared that characterisation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu professed himself "deeply disturbed that the nation, the state, South Africa has been subordinated to a political party". "Why humiliate the nation's President in this fashion?" the Nobel Peace Prize-winner asked. "Our country deserves better. The way of retribution leads to a banana republic."

South Africa's newspapers were similarly concerned. A cartoon in Business Day showed Mr Zuma brandishing a chainsaw and an evil grin, with the severed head of Mr Mbeki at his feet, declaring: "Now I can get back to my work of uniting the ANC."

Helen Zille, the head of South Africa's main opposition, the Democratic Alliance, said: "Democracy will only mature when the voters put leaders out of office, not when personal vendettas decide things. The realignment of politics in South Africa is long overdue."

The South African media has reported that staunch Mbeki allies are considering breaking away and forming a new party. "The ANC is a hostile place to live at the moment if you are not part of the anti-Mbeki group," the commentator Justice Malala wrote in the South African newspaper The Times. "A whole raft of ministers are now facing the political wilderness... they all need a home."

A march is planned for Mbeki supporters on the parliament in Cape Town tomorrow, according to local media reports, and this might be the first gauge of the strength of the pro-Mbeki camp.

As yet, however , there has been no mass exodus from the cabinet, and Mr Zuma stressed that he wanted all current ministers to remain in their posts, and even promised that Mr Mbeki would "continue to be given tasks", referring to him, without any apparent irony, as "my friend and brother".

Some analysts suggested that the conciliatory tones in public from both sides and the eventual election of Mr Motlanthe as interim president could help heal the party divide. "He's a very solid person and... he always avoids wild rhetoric," said Keith Gottschalk, a political analyst at the University of the Western Cape. "He seems to also avoid making enemies and, in the present political climate, that's a good thing."

However Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy in South Africa, said choosing Mr Motlanthe would be an "extremely odd decision" given that "some people within the ANC believe he would be a better president than Mr Zuma".

He also questioned whether it was a done deal: "If that was so, why did Mr Zuma not make the announcement immediately rather than leaving everyone in limbo? We must remember that this is a party whose members spend every waking hour jockeying for power."

Voices of South Africa: The view on Zuma

"I hope the feuding in the ANC leads to a split. I don't like their two-thirds majority. We need an opposition"

Werner Cronje, 34, computer programmer

"This country could go like Zimbabwe. Zuma looks like the kind of president who doesn't like criticism and that reminds me of Mugabe"

Matilda Khawundta, 26, waitress

"They could have waited and let Mbeki serve his term. But we are a democracy, and changing presidents is very natural"

At Nel, 40, musician

"It about revenge, pure and simple. It's terrible for the ANC and I'm worried that this is going to take the country down"

Mandla Mnguni, 35, chef