JOHANNESBURG, September 20 – South Africa veered towards a new political era Saturday after President Thabo Mbeki accepted a call from the governing African National Congress (ANC) to stand down, his spokesman said.
"The president has accepted the decision of the ANC’s national executive council," he said on 702 Talk Radio in Johannesburg, which reported that Mbeki is convening a special government meeting for Sunday to decide the way forward.
His comments came shortly after the ANC issued a call for him to resign.
"The ANC has decided to recall the president of the republic before his mandate has expired," secretary general Gwede Mantashe told journalists following a meeting of the party leadership.
"Our decision has been concluded, the formalities are now subject to the parliamentary process," Mantashe said.
"We have communicated our decision (to Mbeki) and that we will be going through parliamentary process. He has agreed to participate in that process."
Mbeki, 66, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as president in June 1999, has been under fire since allegations that he was influential in pressing corruption charges against ANC leader and political rival Jacob Zuma.
Under the South African constitution the president is appointed by parliament, which has been dominated by the ANC since the end of apartheid and the start of majority rule in May 1994.
Under the South African constitution, the president is appointed by parliament, Mbeki’s term was due to expire in mid-2009.
Over the last few months, Mbeki has been at the forefront of efforts to mediate an end to the power struggle in neighbouring Zimbabwe.
Senior ANC officials gathered Friday to discuss Mbeki’s future, but failed to come to a decision — prompting speculation of a split within the party.
"The ANC’s extraordinary delay in announcing a decision on the political fate of president Mbeki is the result of a growing war in the ruling party," the main opposition Democratic Alliance said.
"There has never been a more powerful illustration of the leadership crisis within the ANC," it said in a statement prior to Saturday’s developments.
The Pretoria News said: "A potential political crisis could shake (financial) markets and dent an economy already experiencing lean times."
At issue was a September 12 court ruling that cleared Zuma of corruption charges and alleged Mbeki’s government had interfered in the decision to prosecute him.
Fierce debate followed the judgment, along with speculation as to whether the ANC would force Mbeki out in a vote of no confidence, ask him to resign, or allow him to serve out his term which ends next year.
The vocal ANC youth league wants him out but the ANC has reacted more cautiously, saying any decision would be by consensus and announced after its national executive committee had met over the weekend.
Mbeki was allegedly involved in the decision to press corruption charges against
Mbeki’s office on Friday again denied the claims of interference, saying it was damaging to the integrity of the presidency and "injurious to the dignity and person" of Mbeki.
The dismissal of the charges on a technicality cleared the way for Zuma — who toppled Mbeki as ANC leader in a fiercely contested race last year — to become South Africa’s president in elections next year.
This week, South Africa’s prosecuting authority said it would appeal the court’s decision to quash the corruption charges against Zuma.
The ANC leader faced charges ranging from money-laundering to racketeering in a long-running corruption investigation dating back to 2001, which saw the accusations dropped then revived.
The main allegation was that he received bribes for protecting French arms company Thint in an investigation into a controversial weapons deal.
The judge, Chris Nicholson, on Friday said the decision to throw out the case was not a reflection of Zuma’s guilt or innocence, but a technical decision based on his right to make representations before being recharged.
But the judge also hinted that Zuma’s complaints that he was the victim of a conspiracy had some merit, pointing to "baleful political influence".
Mbeki fired Zuma as deputy president in 2005 after his financial advisor was jailed for corruption.