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By Patrick Laurence
Jacob Zuma, the newly elected ANC president, while still pledging allegiance to reconciliation within the ANC after the acrimonious clashes at the national conference in Polokwane last month, has warned of "serious consequences" if the Mbeki-led government uses its power to thwart the implementation of the resolutions adopted at the conference.
But President Thabo Mbeki has signalled his determination not to be a lame-duck president until he formally vacates the presidential office after the scheduled 2009 national and provincial elections. He backed this up by appointing an SABC board that was chosen before the triumph of the Zuma camp at the conference.
Rightly or wrongly, Mbeki has also been accused of maliciously orchestrating the serving of a renewed and expanded indictment of corruption and related crimes on Zuma little more than a week after the final day of the conference and in the hiatus between Christmas and New Year.
Zuma has not been explicit about what the "serious consequences" might be.
One possible consequence has been raised by the Zuma camp, though it has not been formally endorsed by Zuma or any of his senior lieutenants. It is to initiate a motion of no confidence in Mbeki and his administration and to call for the dissolution of parliament, thereby bringing the Mbeki administration to a premature end and terminating the dichotomy between a Zuma-controlled ANC and an Mbeki-controlled government, which is so irksome to the new order in the ANC.
For a no-confidence motion to succeed, it must be supported by a majority of the 400 members in the national assembly, as prescribed in clause 50 of the 1996 constitution, on which the post-apartheid order is founded. A minimum of 201 votes in favour of the motion is thus required for it to succeed.
The ANC controls nearly three-quarters of the 400 seats - 293 to be exact. Judging from the division of power between the Zuma and Mbeki camps at the Polokwane conference, if the motion is mooted, the pro-Zuma ANC vote will be as close as damn it to the required 201 votes for it to be carried.
But it is likely to attract more than the minimum required for two important reasons: Zuma is the man of the future and Mbeki is yesterday's man - a fact that is likely to work in Zuma's favour if the motion is introduced in a month or two. In addition, the speaker in the national assembly, Maleka Mbete, is the national chairperson of the ANC and a staunch ally of Zuma. She is strategically placed to ensure that those in favour of a no-confidence motion have every opportunity to advance their cause.
The chances of the resolution being rejected should it be placed on the agenda are minute.
Helen Zille, the Democratic Alliance leader, hopes to form a coalition of liked-minded opposition parties and the members of the pro-Mbeki ANC faction, who - in her words - "cannot countenance the future South Africa faces under Zuma's ANC".
But it is a long-term project that, in all probability, would not be completed in time to thwart a no-confidence vote in the next month or two.
Leaving aside the difficulty of coaxing ANC Mbeki loyalists to join an anti-Zuma alliance and expose themselves to condemnation as traitors and apostates, the parliamentary opposition is too weak and too fractured for it to be a viable project in the foreseeable future.
The six biggest opposition parties - the DA, the Inkatha Freedom Party, the Independent Democrats, the United Democratic Movement and the African Christian Democratic Party - can scrape together only 90 votes between them. The other nine opposition parties cannot even muster 20 votes.
Also their pitiful tally will undoubtedly be subject to erosion by the Zuma ANC: in all probability it will use its patronage to woo a number of them into Zuma's corral to vote in favour of a no-confidence motion with the same energy that it will bombard Mbeki supporters with allegations of treachery and threats of social and ideological ostracism.
Taking all these considerations into account, a motion of no-confidence in Mbeki, a call for the dissolution of parliament and an early election seem almost certain to succeed.
Whether Zuma will take this route and incur the risk of aggravating the existing animosities within the ANC and of launching the political equivalent of a civil war remain to be seen.
But a no-confidence motion might have advantages for Zuma that outweigh the hazards associated with it. The most obvious is that it will lead to the dissolution of parliament, an early election and, assuming that the ANC election coffer is not empty, another spectacular ANC victory. Provided the election is held before the end of June, another consequence will almost certainly follow: the election of Zuma as South Africa's third black president before the start of his scheduled trial in mid-August.
Presidential status and power will not automatically confer immunity from prosecution on Zuma. But it will undoubtedly vastly increase existing pressure on the national prosecuting authority (NPA) in particular and the judiciary in general to retract the renewed charges served on Zuma in the wake of his triumph at Polokwane.
The demand for the withdrawal of the charges and the incorporation of the NPA's investigation arm, the directorate of special operations (aka the Scorpions) into the police service, will reach a crescendo and perhaps become irresistible. If they do, South Africa will be in the unhappy position where all its citizens are equal but some are deemed to be more equal than the rest.
A preview of what might be in the offing is apparent in the prevailing clamour against the Scorpions for their alleged targeting of prominent members of the ANC, even though the putative victims were charged or convicted in open court and not denied the right to seek redress from the highest courts in the land.