September 25, 2008

Motlanthe sworn in as interim president

Deputy ANC leader Kgalema Motlanthe was sworn in as South Africa's president on Thursday to replace Thabo Mbeki, who resigned amid the worst political crisis since the end of apartheid. Motlanthe was overwhelmingly elected by Parliament in a secret ballot and will serve as interim president until next year's election.

The ANC withdrew its backing for Mbeki after a judge suggested he had interfered in a graft case against his rival, party leader Jacob Zuma, who is widely expected to become president in a general election next year. Almost one-third of South Africa's Cabinet stepped down on Tuesday out of loyalty to Mbeki, highlighting the worst infighting in the party's history. Mbeki presided over South Africa's longest period of economic growth during his nine years in office and foreign investors hope the new leadership will stick to his pro-business policies.

Motlanthe, a quiet spoken leftist intellectual and ally of Zuma, faces huge challenges including slowing economic growth and high inflation. Officials said on Thursday consumer inflation hit its highest level since before the end of apartheid in August, at 13,7%.

Reflecting the ANC's dominance of Parliament, Motlanthe won 269 votes from members of Parliament, compared to 50 for the candidate of the opposition Democratic Alliance. ANC parliamentarians greeted the announcement of the vote with cheers and clapping.

The upheaval in the ANC, climax of a power struggle between Mbeki and Zuma, has raised concerns of instability in Africa's biggest economy and a possible split in the formerly monolithic ruling party. "The ANC for some time has spoken about the need to maintain the [economic] policies that have been in place, so as things stand now, one shouldn't necessarily expect a major policy change," said Leon Myburgh, sub-Saharan specialist at Citigroup. "Motlanthe himself of course has always been a bit of a quiet, behind the scenes figure, so the next few months will be interesting to monitor him, and what he says and his actions."

It was not immediately clear when Motlanthe would name his new Cabinet although investors are keenly watching to see if highly respected Finance Minister Trevor Manuel will be reappointed. Motlanthe, a former mine union leader, is widely respected by both radical leftists and business tycoons within the ANC. He will try to heal the worst rifts in the history of the party because of the battle between Mbeki and Zuma, which has overshadowed pressing issues such as widespread poverty and crime and an HIV/Aids pandemic ravaging millions.

Radical policy changes under Motlanthe in the short transitional period are unlikely but foreign investors eager for stability and a continuity of economic policy will be watching closely for clues on whether the ANC will change course. The populist Zuma is trying to reassure foreign investors he would not stray from business-friendly economic policies but is under pressure from left-leaning union allies to alleviate poverty through more government spending.

Meanwhile, it emerged on Sept 25 that Zuma will oppose Mbeki's application to join an appeal against the Pietermaritzburg High Court judgement suggesting he was part of a plot against Zuma. Zuma on Thursday filed notice, in the Constitutional Court, of his intention to oppose the application, according to a statement from his lawyer Michael Hulley.

Mbeki filed papers on Monday applying to join the Constitutional Court appeal brought by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). He argued that certain parts of Justice Chris Nicholson's judgement on the Zuma matter were "unfair and unjust". "I respectfully submit that it was not necessary for the learned judge to make the findings I am appealing against, or seeking to set aside, in order for him to decide the real issue that was before him. “In any event, it was improper for the court to make such far-reaching findings concerning me." In his judgement, Nicholson found that the executive might have interfered in the decision to prosecute Zuma, who faced racketeering, corruption, money-laundering and fraud charges related to the multibillion-rand arms deal. "I am ... not convinced that the applicant [Zuma] was incorrect in averring political meddling in his prosecution," Nicholson noted in finding the prosecution of Zuma invalid. (M&G)

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