New South African Leader Emerges in Power Shift In a matter of weeks, South African leader Thabo Mbeki was ousted and replaced by Kgalema Motlanthe, a relative newcomer. The change marks the biggest political upheaval in South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994.
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New South African Leader Emerges in Power Shift

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New South African Leader Emerges in Power Shift

New South African Leader Emerges in Power Shift

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This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. There are changes in South Africa, changes to mark the biggest political upheaval since the end of apartheid in 1994. Today, South Africa's parliament elected a new president. He will hold office until elections next year. In a matter of weeks, the ruling African National Congress engineered the ouster of former President Thabo Mbeki to make way for a new leadership. As NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports, the political changes reflect a power struggle within the ANC.

GWEN THOMPKINS: It all happened so fast. Kgalema Motlanthe became a member of parliament only about eight weeks ago. But today, lawmakers chose this quiet and dependable favorite of the ruling African National Congress for South Africa's highest office. He had been hand selected by ANC leader Jacob Zuma, who was eager to see former President Thabo Mbeki go. Motlanthe said he was humbled.

KGALEMA MOTLANTHE: I undertake this responsibility fully cognizant of the duties and responsibilities that are attached to this high office and the expectations that the people of this nation rightly have of a head of state. I thank you. (unintelligible).


THOMPKINS: Motlanthe, Zuma, and Mbeki are now and forever joined in a political coming-of-age story for post-apartheid South Africa. In a nation dominated by one political party, this period will test whether the ANC can survive intact. Within the party's wide variety of constituents, rifts are now exposed between pro-Mbeki and pro-Zuma factions, and many South Africans are fed up. In parliament, opposition lawmaker Joe Seremane called the ANC's power struggle the politics of revenge and hatred.

JOE SEREMANE: The country is crying out for resolute and strong leadership to reduce the level of anxiety currently felt by a great many of our people who have been deeply unsettled by the governing party's internal power struggles.

THOMPKINS: Like all great rivalries, Mbeki and Zuma's began with a great friendship. Mark Gevisser wrote a biography of Mbeki and has now written a book on the nation's future after Mbeki.

MAR GEVISSER: Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki have spent months of their political lives as incredibly close comrades and friends. And for most of Thabo Mbeki's period, Jacob Zuma has been his adjunct.

THOMPKINS: When Mbeki became president of South Africa, Zuma was his deputy. But as Zuma's presidential ambitions rose, Mbeki reportedly cooled. And when a Zuma ally was convicted for arranging bribes for Zuma in an arms deal, Mbeki fired his old friend from government. Years later, Zuma's role in the deal is still unclear, but allegations of corruption have never dimmed his popularity in the ANC.

When a judge recently suggested that Mbeki had meddled in a pending corruption case against Zuma, that gave Zuma and the ANC the opportunity to act. They recalled Mbeki from the presidency. Sheila Meintjes teaches political science in Johannesburg. She calls the rivalry a brutatwist, which in Afrikaas means a fight between brothers.

SHEILA MEINTJES: The Zuma faction felt very strongly aggrieved and believed very strongly that there was a conspiracy against Zuma preventing him from getting to the presidency.

THOMPKINS: Meintjes says the ANC could have handled the situation better. But South Africa's democracy is intact.

MEINTJES: I think we're going through a big learning curve as a country, as a democracy. Our constitution is, in fact, not being challenged here. Our constitution is being followed.

THOMPKINS: Despite the ANC's assurances of unity, there's no telling whether the party can repair itself. It could splinter. And biographer Mark Givesser says maybe that's a sign that South Africa is growing up.

GIVESSER: Between 1994 and now, there's been a very clear continuity. One would always be able to say I know exactly what's going to happen next year. And we can't say that at the moment.

THOMPKINS: Shortly after taking office today, President Motlanthe got to work. He immediately announced his cabinet, which included a number of fresh names and some old popular ones. It all happened so fast. Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Johannesburg.

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