These are good days for South Africa's newspaper vendors. Open up any broadsheet and lurid details of government squabbles spill out—usually fueled by highly placed leaks. If one element unites the crises, it's the invariable presence of Thabo Mbeki, the country's president, at their center. TELL US THE TRUTH, MR. PRESIDENT! screamed one headline last week. Increasingly, however, that's something Mbeki seems reluctant to do.
The African National Congress, which Mbeki leads, has always put more emphasis on loyalty and obedience than on open debate in its ranks. But Mbeki long seemed a powerful advocate for democracy and good governance within the party. As Nelson Mandela's deputy, he built a reputation for honesty, helping build up the National Prosecuting Office and establishing an elite team of lawyers and investigators, called the Scorpions, to root out corruption and graft.
More recently, however, analysts say the president has drifted toward a dangerous kind of authoritarianism. Why? In December, the ANC will choose his successor as party leader, and the power struggle is revealing deep splits within the ANC. It's also revealing a rarely seen rough side in Mbeki's character as he seeks to consolidate his legacy. Some South Africans now speak of a brewing constitutional crisis. "The president has said 'trust me,' but everything he's done has made us question whether we can," says Helen Zille, leader of the opposition party, Democratic Alliance.
Until recently, Mbeki did a deft job of balancing the country's many ethnic, religious and linguistic constituencies while governing and holding his party together. When his deputy president, Jacob Zuma, was accused of corruption in 2005, Mbeki lost no time in sacking him. Since then, however, his moves have become harder to justify. In August, he fired the wildly popular deputy Health minister, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. The ostensible cause was her disobedience, but the real reason may have been Routledge's increasingly strident criticism of her boss, the controversial Health minister and close Mbeki crony Manto Tshabalala-Msimang—who earned international derision for promoting the use of beetroot and African potatoes to treat AIDS. The firing of Routledge, a respected public-health expert, sparked an immediate outcry. ANC allies accused Mbeki of abusing his powers to protect his followers.
In fact, his moves may be nothing more than the normal political jockeying that precedes a leadership change. Some claim that the mere fact Mbeki is being criticized so bitterly is proof of his democratic bona fides. "Where else in the world have you heard a party argue that the president is imperial and operates like a dictator?" asks Adam Habib, of the Human Research Council. Habib and others insist that Mbeki's gaffes—including his bizarre approach to HIV/AIDS (he has cast doubt on the link between the two), his lethargic response to Robert Mugabe's oppression of Zimbabwe and South Africa's spiraling crime statistics—may be serious errors but have created space for dissent within the ANC.
Still, his behavior is getting harder to defend. Though he's always been somewhat ruthless, in the past he was careful to avoid impropriety and was known as a careful strategist. Now analysts and intimates are bewildered by his refusal to explain his actions and political fauxes pas. Fresh suspicions surfaced recently when the country's chief prosecutor, Visu Pikoli, issued an arrest warrant for the national police chief, Jackie Selebi. Mbeki immediately suspended Pikoli, citing administrative problems supposedly unrelated to the case. But critics have pointed out that Selebi is a longtime Mbeki supporter and a powerhouse within the ANC. Moreover, there were plenty of reasons for his prosecution. Selebi has previously confessed to maintaining a friendship with an accused murderer and is suspected of racketeering and suborning justice.
As criticism over Pikoli's suspension began to spread, Mbeki ordered an independent investigation—but made sure to appoint a friendly ANC supporter to head it up. "Democracies are designed to deal with leaders [who are] less than democratic," says Paul Graham, director of the Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa. "This will be the first real test."
A coalition of opposition parties has begun arguing that Mbeki has done irreparable damage to the independence of South Africa's judiciary and that he should publicly explain his actions. Even some Mbeki supporters, such as trade-union leaders, now admit that his behavior has provoked a "serious crisis" and undermined the democratic process. That may be a stretch: South Africa is still a beacon for democracy. But that's something Mbeki may sometimes need reminding of these days.