Mbeki denies plot against Zuma

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The South African President Thabo Mbeki has hit back at his party critics as leaders of his ruling African National Congress (ANC) met to consider the ultimate humiliation of removing him from office before the end of his second and final term.

In a statement issued before the three-day session of the ANC executive body, the President denied he had put pressure on prosecutors to charge his political rival, Jacob Zuma, with corruption. The case against Mr Zuma, who is the leading candidate to replace Mr Mbeki as South African president after being elected party leader last December, was dropped last week.

Mr Mbeki, who is unlikely to survive the trial by his own party, attacked the tendency to "hurl insults" at him. "It impoverishes our society that some resort to the tactic of advancing allegations with no fact to support these," he said.

Mr Mbeki has been fighting for his political survival after being accused by a Durban high court judge of colluding with the country's national prosecuting service, in violation of the constitution, to lay a raft of corruption and fraud charges against Mr Zuma.

Justice Chris Nicholson's judgment, which threw out the case on technical grounds, effectively confirmed the popular ANC leader's long-held view that he was a victim of a political conspiracy to thwart his ascendancy to the top job in Africa's economic and political powerhouse.

Since the judgment last week, many of Mr Zuma's supporters, some of whom sit on the decision-making national executive committee, have openly called for Mr Mbeki to be recalled for plotting against their leader. Many became convinced that he was plotting against Mr Zuma after the latter was re-charged barely 24 hours after beating Mr Mbeki in the ANC leadership elections. Sources said the majority of party stalwarts in the national executive committee want him to go.

The deeply unpopular Mr Mbeki, who brokered last week's power-sharing deal in Zimbabwe, has nevertheless come out fighting, denying ever having plotted against Mr Zuma.

It was understood last night that the ANC leadership would adopt a resolution asking Mr Mbeki to resign voluntarily, instead of hounding him from office through an impeachment procedure or a vote of no confidence motion in parliament. That would see power temporarily moving to the Speaker of Parliament, Mbaleka Mbete, before Mr Zuma takes over in elections due early next year.

In view of the animosity that he faces from within his own party, Mr Mbeki has reportedly told his close cabinet friends that he is ready to go if asked to quit. There are fears that his departure could result in an avalanche of sympathy resignations from many close cabinet ministers, effectively destabilising the government.

Having his final term cut short would be the ultimate humiliation for Mr Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela in 1999, particularly after losing the party leadership race to Mr Zuma last year. Although his stewardship of the economy had won him praise from local and international business, his distant and aloof leadership style has cost Mr Mbeki hugely in the political arena. Unlike Mr Zuma, who mingles and dances with grassroots crowds, Mr Mbeki has never been close to the rank and file of the party and the ANC's alliance partners, who felt isolated by his distant and, some say, "too intellectual" leadership style.

"The mere fact that he has now been hauled before a jury of his own party is in itself a disgraceful way to end what could otherwise been a successful presidency if this guy had always got his act together," said one party official.

The official added that even though Mr Mbeki was now being praised for brokering the fragile unity deal in Zimbabwe, it had all happened after a long time of cosying up to the regime of the President Robert Mugabe regime during which South Africa's neighbour has been run in to the ground.

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