Plot against Mbeki, or his critics?

Government implicates top leaders

critics say goal is quashing dissent

April 27, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - South Africa's safety and security minister delivered the announcement on a nationally televised news broadcast: There was a plot in the works to oust - and maybe harm - President Thabo Mbeki.

Then the minister proceeded to name the alleged conspirators: three of the nation's most prominent black citizens, top business leaders who had stellar records as anti-apartheid activists and ruling party loyalists. All three would be subject to a police investigation, he said.

So began a story of political intrigue in South Africa this week that is causing a stir within the governing African National Congress and drawing more criticism of Mbeki's troubled presidency.

Opposition party members and analysts accused the president of cooking up the conspiracy and the investigation by state police forces to intimidate his potential party rivals from challenging him in the 2004 general election.

On a continent where political leaders have changed constitutions to extend term limits or used violence and intimidation to suppress opposition, the events unfolding this week aroused fears that the same could occur in South Africa's young democracy.

"This is going to silence debate. People are going to be afraid to criticize [Mbeki]. This is not good for democracy," said Sheila Meintjies, a professor of political science at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Meintjies dismissed the allegations against the three businessmen as a "trumped-up plot" orchestrated by Mbeki supporters - and perhaps Mbeki himself - to shore up support for his administration. Mbeki's reputation has suffered after a series of public relations disasters since he took office in 1999. He drew worldwide criticism after questioning the link between HIV and AIDS and for failing to condemn the political upheaval in neighboring Zimbabwe. This week's political drama appeared to be another strike against him.

"Is he fit to rule?" asked a headline on the front page of the national Mail & Guardian newspaper yesterday.

Speaking on the state-run South African Broadcast Corp., Safety and Security Minister Steve Tshwete on Tuesday implicated Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Matthews Phosa as conspirators orchestrating a plot against Mbeki. Tshwete accused the men of being involved in a smear campaign against the president. Although the minister offered no evidence, he alleged the three were spreading rumors that Mbeki was involved in the 1993 assassination of South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani.

Two white supremacists were convicted of murdering Hani, a much-loved leader who at one time was considered a rival of Mbeki. If Mbeki was accused of being connected to the murder, Hani supporters might attempt to seek revenge against him, Tshwete said. As a precaution, Mbeki's security had been increased, he said.

Mbeki appeared on a separate television news program on Tuesday and asked that the conspiracy be discussed openly if it did exist. Yesterday, according to state run radio, Mbeki said he was not aware of any plots to oust him.

Ramaphosa, Sexwale and Phosa have all vehemently denied the allegations. And yesterday Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president, stepped in to to defend the three businessmen.

"The three comrades that have been mentioned ... until there is evidence to substantiate the allegations, I will always regard them in high esteem," the Nobel peace laureate told the South African Broadcasting Corp.

"Let us not prejudge the issue," Mandela said.

Ramaphosa, one of the nation's wealthiest businessmen, is chairman of a media and publishing firm in Johannesburg. A former trade union organizer, Ramaphosa was the ANC's top negotiator with the former white-minority government in the final days of apartheid. He was once considered one of Mandela's top choices to be deputy president in 1994, and thus would have been viewed as Mandela's anointed successor.

Sexwale and Phosa are both former provincial premiers. Sexwale was imprisoned with Mandela on Robben Island, where the white supremacist regime kept political prisoners.

The alleged plot has been front-page news in South Africa this week. Yesterday, several newspapers attacked Mbeki's apparent insecurity.

A full-page editorial in the Mail & Guardian concluded: "His 22 months in power have been disastrous. And he has no one to blame but himself. Whether in his dealings with the AIDS crisis - surely the gravest threat ever to confront the country - his timidity over Zimbabwe, or in his dealings with the sensitive matter of race in our politics, he has made worse the disfigured nationhood bequeathed to us by apartheid."

Business Day editorial writers called the investigation of the three businessmen "a blatant attempt to intimidate Mbeki's prospective challengers. ... The events of the last few days are more likely to fuel, rather than dampen, domestic and international concern about Mbeki's performance as head of state."

The ANC denied reports of strains within its ranks.

"Reports that the ANC plans to purge `rivals' to President Mbeki are inaccurate. The ANC has on numerous occasions urged all its member who wish to contest a position in the organization to do so, and to do so openly," the ANC wrote in a press statement.

Sipho Buthelezi, a researcher at the Africa Institute of South Africa in Pretoria, agreed.

"As far as I'm concerned, Thabo's credibility is intact," he said. "He is the most able and articulate leader of the ANC at present."

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