MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, "The Secret Life of Bees" was a best-selling novel. Now it's a star-studded film opening this week. We speak with the novelist, the film's director and its Oscar-winning star. We'll have that conversation for you in just a few minutes.
But first, our Thursday international briefing takes us to South Africa. There, the African National Congress, the party that led the 40-year fight against apartheid, the party of Nelson Mandela, may be closed to splitting into two factions. Divisions within the ANC deepened last month when President Thabo Mbeki was forced from office by party officials loyal to his rival, Jacob Zuma. In the weeks since, several South African government leaders have resigned in solidarity with Mbeki.
Mbeki's supporters claim that Zuma is too tainted to lead the party. They cite as evidence Zuma's close relationship with his former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, who is currently serving a 15-year sentence on corruption charges. Mosiuoa Lekota, the former South African defense minister, is among those who resigned after Mbeki stepped down. He joins us on the phone from Johannesburg. Welcome, sir.
Mr. MOSIUOA LEKOTA (Former South African Defense Minister): Good afternoon to the listeners, as well.
MARTIN: After Thabo Mbeki left office, nine cabinet ministers, including yourself, resigned their positions. Since then, others have followed. Why did you feel you needed to resign this very important post?
Mr. LEKOTA: Well, firstly, because the judiciary have found that we may have broken our oath of office. The impression was that we would have interfered in the prosecution of Jacob Zuma. Although the African National Congress said must return to our duties, we said that insofar as Jacob Zuma had been dismissed when the judiciary had found that he had been implicated in the case of Schabir Shaik, the same standard had to be applied. Of course, the majority of the members of cabinet did return to service, but some of us felt that it would be double standards and that until we had shown that we had not, in fact, broken our oath of office, we could not claim to be honorable members and we withdrew from parliament.
MARTIN: What is the core of the rift between Mr. Mbeki and Mr. Zuma? Is it personal? Is it Mr. Mbeki's view that Mr. Zuma is fundamentally dishonest and unsuited for public service or is there some policy or ideological difference between the two?
Mr. LEKOTA: The issue has to do with Mr. Zuma's being implicated in the evidence that was placed before the courts in the case of Schabir Shaik. And the (unintelligible) wants us to respect the determinations of the judiciary. So Mr. Zuma, until he proves his innocence in the court, cannot be honorable enough to continue to serve in government in the view of many of us.
MARTIN: But does the law permit him to continue to serve?
Mr. LEKOTA: No. The law does not because the law does say that if you're convicted of a crime of a certain type, you may not sit in parliament and represent the people.
MARTIN: Obviously, the laws of the countries are different, but in this country, one is considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Is it your sense that the evidence or the aura of corruption around Mr. Zuma, in your view, even though he has not been convicted by a court, makes you unwilling to continue to serve with him in the same party, that you feel he's unfit for leadership?
Mr. LEKOTA: The main reason why President Thabo himself was recalled and why many of us stood down is because the provisions of our law require that we must respect that position as determined by the judiciary.
MARTIN: In a radio interview, you said that you are willing to help form a new party. Why is a new party needed at this time, in your view?
Mr. LEKOTA: Well, presently, the chief of the ANC has begun to move away from the provisions of the national Constitution, as well as the fundamental principles of the Freedom Charter. For instance, in the case of comrade Zuma, they now call for a political solution to the pending charges that he has to answer in court. That is moving away from equality before the law because everybody else that is charged with any criminal act must go to the court, table evidence to prove their innocence.
Secondly, in the recent period the leaders of the ANC, the national executive has gone on public platforms saying that they would kill for Zuma if there was any obstacles on the road for his becoming president of this country. Now, that does away with the right of the people to choose who must govern them. People must go and vote and make that choice. And then, of course, there is the question of the attack on the courts, on the judiciary, which now makes it impossible for them do their work in an atmosphere conducive to objective assessment of cases. And that, as far as we are concerned, is moving away from the rule of law.
MARTIN: What do you mean by an attack on the judiciary?
Mr. LEKOTA: The judges have been called by the secretary general of the ANC - they have been called counter-revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries preparing to convict comrade Zuma. The democracy-supporting institutions have tried to intervene in the light of those threats. The leaders of the ANC or national executive have - instead of supporting the democracy-supporting institutions, have come out in support with those who are issuing these threats.
MARTIN: And you're saying, calling someone a counter-revolutionary has grave implications because as you, of course, I'm sure know, in this country people, you know, often criticize the Supreme Court of this country for decisions which they don't like. But you are saying that in South Africa, calling someone a counter-revolutionary is perceived as a grave threat.
Mr. LEKOTA: I don't have my term but the extent which judges have been singled out and threatened goes beyond acceptance in this country.
MARTIN: You've called for a national convention in November. Do you feel that these plans will go forward and who do you hope will attend? Do you think Mr. Mbeki will attend?
Mr. LEKOTA: I don't know what Mr. Mbeki will do. I do know that large numbers of South Africans were alarmed at the events that I am referring to, will be there in numbers everywhere across the country. People are organizing themselves, and everybody is saying, the call for this convention has long been overdue. And we who want to defend our Constitution must go to the convention, must organize ourselves in such a way that we defend the Constitution by organizing ourselves into a formation that can compel elections next year and defeat this group of leaders who are issuing these threats.
MARTIN: What would be the core principle of this new party? And do you have a name for this new party?
Mr. LEKOTA: All of these are issues that will be decided at the convention at the beginning of November, the second week of November.
MARTIN: And the ANC has been the dominant political force in South Africa since 1994. If a new party is formed, how do you assess this party's chances? Is it the intension to stand a candidate in a presidential election next year?
Mr. LEKOTA: If the mood in the country is anything to go by, it is quite probable that the new formation will even quite possibly defeat the African National Congress.
MARTIN: Is it your intention to stand for president if a new party is formed?
Mr. LEKOTA: It's too early to deal with issues like that. People at the ANC have been accusing us of doing this because we want power. I am interested in - if I can, I'd rather avoid any powerful seat. I am more concerned with making sure that in the body politic, the levels of the vigilance of the members of our society is raised so that never again should the vigilance go down so that our democracy may drown under mismanagement.
MARTIN: And finally, what reaction are you getting both personally and sort of from the public to your outspokenness at this time?
Mr. LEKOTA: Naturally, there are people who are unhappy with the position that I've taken, but for now the end - my sense is that there are larger, much bigger numbers who are extremely happy and welcome this as a breath of fresh air in our society.
MARTIN: Mosiuoa Lekota is the former defense minister of South Africa. He was kind enough to join us on the phone from Johannesburg. Mr. Lekota, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. LEKOTA: Thank you very much. A privilege. Bye-bye.
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