CAPE TOWN, September 21 – South Africa faces huge uncertainties over the imminent resignation of President Thabo Mbeki, with much riding on the ruling party’s ability to manage a smooth transition, analysts said Sunday.
Mbeki has agreed to resign after the African National Congress urged him to step down, a decision which will put the governing party on the spot if key cabinet ministers follow him out the door.
South Africa’s first forced resignation of a democratically elected leader may rock the country.
It holds few surprises, however, as it was expected that Mbeki’s rival Jacob Zuma would take over as president after general elections in 2009.
Democratic South Africa is experiencing a "watershed moment" that needs to be very carefully managed, said Judith February, an analyst with the Institute for Democracy of Southern Africa.
The call for Mbeki’s resignation is "an unwise decision" seven months before the election and it will be up to the ANC to keep as much of the cabinet together as they can, she added.
"It will really depend on how they will manage to hold together a core group of people."
However, "Thabo Mbeki was a lame duck and whether he goes now or he goes six months from now is not of great consequence in terms of leadership issues," said independent political analyst Daniel Silke.
Mbeki, whose second term expires in April next year, lost the reins of the ANC to Zuma, who he sacked as deputy president in 2005, at a confrontational party conference in December.
A decision throwing out corruption charges against Zuma on September 12, and which hinted that Mbeki has interfered in the decision to prosecute him, led to the ANC losing patience with the leader and calling for him to step down.
Mbeki said he would step down "once all constitutional requirements have been fulfilled" and what remains to be seen is what path parliament — who appoints the president — will follow in the next few months.
"It dents our image in the short-term, but not necessarily in the long-term," said analyst Adam Habib of the Human Sciences Research Council.
"The big question is… how it is going to be managed in the next couple of days. It all depends on what Mbeki does, on how they choose the successor, on whether there are elections. If they manage to do it properly, it will not necessarily damage democracy."
"Most of the outside world have accepted the fact that we will have a change of leadership, and that the frontrunner will be Jacob Zuma. Most see it as a personality clash within the ruling party," said Silke.
But "we will see a fairly large turnover in cabinet ministers which will leave the country in a somewhat uncertain state as it prepares for an election."
Political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi said Mbeki could agree to dissolve parliament and set an earlier election date.
"This takes Zuma a step closer to the Union Buildings that is all. The question is will it make it easier or more difficult for Zuma to unite the ANC."
"If it makes it more difficult, what lies beyond that difficulty: at best more tensions, more divisions and the ANC limps along … At worst, a split."
"There might be people who want to leave the ANC. Are you going to have a critical mass (leaving)? It would be foolish to preclude the possibility."
While there has been speculation that the highly successful Finance Minister Trevor Manuel may leave with Mbeki, his spokeswoman Thoraya Pandy refused to comment on what he might decide.
The ANC will want to avoid an early election "at all cost", said February.
"They are not ready. They need time to rectify things and renew their relationship with the electorate."