- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2005

JOHANNESBURG — President Thabo Mbeki fired his vice president yesterday amid an embarrassing corruption scandal, opening a rift in the powerful African National Congress and creating a crisis over who will succeed Mr. Mbeki when his term expires in 2009.

Vice President Jacob Zuma maintained his innocence but declared that he would step aside for the good of the young democracy.

‘Let me reiterate that my conscience is clear. I have not committed any crime against the state or the people of South Africa,’ he told reporters, noting that he had not been officially charged with breaking the law.

As vice president, he was in line to become head of state when Mr. Mbeki steps down in 2009 at the end of his second term.

Mr. Zuma had been implicated at a sensational trial in the coastal city of Durban, where his ‘financial adviser’ and longtime friend Shabir Shaik was accused of making payments to the vice president in exchange for political favors.

Two weeks ago, the court found Mr. Shaik guilty of maintaining a corrupt relationship with Mr. Zuma. Much of the evidence focused on accusations that a French arms company had sought to use Mr. Shaik’s influence with the vice president to secure a contract with the South African government.

Documents showed how Mr. Shaik, who is expected to appeal, made payments totaling $178,000 to fund the vice president’s lavish lifestyle.

At a televised sitting of Parliament in Cape Town yesterday, Mr. Mbeki noted that the high court judge’s ruling in the Shaik trial had identified a ‘generally corrupt’ relationship between the vice president and his financial adviser.

‘I have come to the conclusion that the circumstances dictate that in the interest of the honorable deputy president, the government, our young democratic system and our country, it would be best to release the honorable Jacob Zuma from his responsibilities as deputy president,’ Mr. Mbeki told the house.

Mr. Zuma also was dismissed from the Cabinet and is set to resign as a member of Parliament. Under the South African Constitution, the president appoints all Cabinet ministers, including the vice president. Mr. Mbeki has not named a replacement, but speculation has centered on the defense minister and ANC chairman, Mosiuoa Lekota, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and Mr. Zuma’s ex-wife, Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma.

Mr. Zuma, 63, whose humble origins in a poverty-stricken region along the east coast have made him popular with unions and the poor, remains vice chairman of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

In 1960, he joined the struggle against the white-minority government. He was imprisoned on Robben Island for 10 years with Nelson Mandela.

Ever since the trial verdict against Mr. Shaik, there has been intense lobbying within the ANC over who might replace Mr. Zuma.

South Africa’s majority black population is divided into nine major language groups, each of which must be accommodated in the Cabinet if the ANC is to maintain its nationwide success at the polls. In last year’s general election, the ANC won more than two-thirds of the vote.

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