Mandela's Party Loses Its Shine Fast

Scandal, vigilantes, and economic jitters tarnish image of the African National Congress

It's been a bad couple of weeks for President Nelson Mandela. A collapsing currency, Islamic vigilantes running wild, and accusations of corruption by a senior member have damaged South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Analysts say the party is under pressure now from various flanks as never before in its two years of running the country's first multiracial government.

There are the worries that a weak currency (the rand), which has depreciated by more than 25 percent against the American dollar since mid-February, is undermining foreign confidence in the economy and creating pressures for South Africans.

On the political side, a row with a senior ANC figure, Bantu Holomisa, is putting the government's credibility and image of accountability at stake. The former deputy environmental affairs and tourism minister, who lost his job because of his criticisms of the ANC leadership, faces a party disciplinary hearing.

He has been accused of bringing the ANC into disrepute through his testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up to excavate apartheid-era human rights abuses. Mr. Holomisa had alleged that Public Enterprises Minister Stella Sigcau accepted part of a bribe from casino magnate Sol Kerzner before the ANC came to power.

ANC Deputy Secretary General Cheryl Carolus later branded Holomisa a liar for claiming that Mr. Kerzner, who has faced corruption charges for several years but has not gone to trial, had contributed 2 million rand (now $437,600) to the party's 1994 election campaign.

Mr. Mandela last week confirmed the donation had been made to the ANC and that it did nothing wrong by accepting Kerzner's money as the latter had not been convicted of any crime. But by saying that he, and he alone, knew about the contribution has raised questions by critics over what kind of party would allow its leader not to share such important information with other officials.

However, Mandela loyalists say no party anywhere in the world would accept such breaking of ranks as exhibited by Holomisa.

"Holomisa was completely out of line," said one ANC government official. "Besides, what the ANC did before it came to power is another matter than what it does as a governing party. We accepted money from all sorts of people and governments while we were still a liberation group."

This is not the first time Holomisa's outspokenness has alienated him from party leaders. But Holomisa, who received the most votes at the party's 1994 congress for its national executive committee, says he is the victim of a purge of populists by Mandela's hand-chosen successor, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki.

A recent shake-up in the government saw Holomisa's exit and an ascendancy of Mbeki intimates. Senior ANC official predict that once Holomisa has his hearing, further revelations may put the party under pressure. Every scandal that weakens the ANC's credibility will make the job all the more difficult for Mr. Mbeki to take over from Mandela in the next couple years.

Columnist John Qwelane, who had been a critic of the previous apartheid regime, said it was the ANC and not Holomisa that stands accused in the disciplinary hearing. The party trial has been postponed for the time being.

"The charade being played out today, therefore, is not so much Holomisa as the ANC itself, being on trial; the party's credibility has taken a hard knock with President Mandela's admission ... of the Kerzner funding," Qwelane wrote in an editorial in Johannesburg's Saturday Star.

As if political scandal were not enough, Mandela's government is beleaguered by a public outcry over what is one of the world's highest levels of violent crime.

Two weeks ago a Muslim vigilante group calling itself PAGAD (People Against Gangs and Drugs) declared a holy war against gangsters operating in the Cape Flats area near Cape Town. PAGAD murdered a drug baron and threatened to kill more.

The murder has prompted a public debate about the inability of authorities to catch criminals. Some public figures have come out in favor of frustrated citizens' taking the law into their own hands. Police are also worried about claims by PAGAD that it has links with fundamentalist Islamic groups abroad.

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