South Africa's ANC In Trouble

South Africa's ruling African National Congress is involved in an increasingly acrimonious split. The ANC faces a growing number of dissidents who are on the verge of creating their own party. That raises questions about the impact of the ANC's problems on the country's young democracy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. South Africa's African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela, is facing perhaps its biggest challenge since its founding nearly a century ago. And it's in danger of imploding, as NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The 96-year-old ruling African National Congress party has overcome a lot of challenges, including decades-long white minority rule. But the ANC is currently facing a challenge it didn't expect: a rising tide of dissidents deserting the party and on the verge of creating a new one. And of the many questions in the air, one of the biggest is what is driving this exodus, principle or personalities?

(Soundbite of rally)

HUNTER-GAULT: At rallies like this one, dissidents are making the case their defections from the ANC are on principle, saying the party has veered from its original goal and is engaging in practices dangerous to democracy. The move is spearheaded by former top ANC official Mbhazima Shilowa, a former trade unionist and communist, and Mosiuoa Lekota, an anti-apartheid hero and until recently minister of defense. Lekota, who served as the powerful chairman of the ANC, argues when he and others tried to voice their concerns, they were ignored. As an example, he recalled the ANC meeting last December pitting former deputy president Jacob Zuma, a Zulu, against then-president Thabo Mbeki, a Xhosa. Lekota says...

Mr. MOSIUOA LEKOTA (Former Minister of Defense, South Africa): We saw the deputy president of the ANC allow people - and now president of the ANC - allow people to produce T-shirts which openly advocated tribalism. He didn't see anything wrong with it. And even though, you know, some of us raised concerns about the implications of this - given the constitution of the ANC, which enjoins all members to fight tribalism - he just allowed it to go on.

HUNTER-GAULT: But many say the genesis of the split arose two years earlier, when then-party and national President Mbeki fired the popular Zuma as his deputy after he was tied to a corruption scandal. Support remained strong for Zuma within the ANC, and he was elected party president in December. When a judge ruled this summer that Mbeki may have been involved in a political conspiracy to undermine Zuma, the ANC forced Mbeki to resign. Some, like Shilowa, say Mbeki was treated unfairly and unjustly.

Mr. MBHAZIMA SHILOWA (Former ANC Official): The dismissal of Mbeki - or putsch, as I call it - would have been the trigger that said to people, if there's ever a moment in which we're going to leave the ANC, this is the moment.

HUNTER-GAULT: ANC President Zuma, speaking to supporters at an outdoor rally, has signaled that there may be other expulsions from the party.

Mr. JACOB ZUMA (President, ANC): To all who would intend to join the campaign to undermine and divide the ANC, we'll act very decisively to rid the movement of factionalists.

HUNTER-GAULT: Here in Kliptown, a sprawling township south of Johannesburg, many seem frustrated by what they see as internal party politics. It was here, in a multiracial gathering more than 50 years ago, that the battle against apartheid and the fight for democracy was born with the adoption of the Freedom Charter, which laid out principles for the country, including the ANC. But today, people like Jake Mzobi(ph), a retired teacher and lifelong ANC member, are pained by the split.

Mr. JAKE MZOBI (Retired Teacher; ANC Member): It's a tragedy.

HUNTER-GAULT: Mzobi, who is wavering on whether to stay in the ANC or go with the dissidents, believes the split is personal.

Mr. MZOBI: Unfortunately, the guys who pushed Thabo Mbeki out, who recalled him, they're recalling him for their own personal purposes.

HUNTER-GAULT: Nearby, Neo Moleti(ph) busies himself fitting an elderly woman for glasses in his stall. He says, a pox on both their houses.

Mr. NEO MOLETI (Spectacles Salesman): If they can solve the thing inside, then no problem. They may not involve the people from outside, because people from outside they want make it to divide. It's like a family problem.

(Soundbite of music)

HUNTER-GAULT: Lawrence Sanbo(ph), who's plying his tunes for sale through an aging boom box, says the party dissidents are doing the right thing.

Mr. LAWRENCE SANBO (Music Salesman): We needed a strong opposition party.

HUNTER-GAULT: And the dissidents are pressing ahead with plans for a national convention November 2 to lay the groundwork for the formation of a new opposition party in December. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR News, Kliptown, South Africa.

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