ANC maintains a united front

South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) party emerged from a crisis meeting of its top executive at the weekend to deny claims of internal divisions in its ranks.

The ANC national executive committee (NEC) meeting was called to heal a rift between President Thabo Mbeki and the party's deputy president, Jacob Zuma, which has degenerated into the worst crisis the ANC has faced since being elected to power in 1994.

Mbeki dismissed Zuma as the country's deputy president in June after he was implicated in a high-profile fraud trial. Zuma had been regarded as a possible candidate to succeed Mbeki, who completes his second term of office in 2009. Zuma's supporters claim he had been the victim of a smear campaign.

In its statement on Monday, the NEC rejected "the notion that individuals are required to choose sides on the basis of the absolutely false assertion that the [ANC] president and deputy president are leading contending factions within the movement".

But according to political analyst Kuseni Dlamini, despite the NEC's attempts to paper over the cracks, the divisions remain. "Fundamentally, the party is facing challenges and is a party at war with itself over several issues, including succession and Zuma," he said.

However, public backing for Zuma, largely from more "leftist" ANC allies, began to evaporate last week after sensational press reports implicated him in allegations of rape.

It emerged that Zuma had told the NEC he was facing rape allegations, but had denied them. ANC insiders and analysts said pressure on Zuma to resign as the party's deputy president was likely to build after the rape claim.

"He [Zuma] should follow his conscience and step down until the allegations are dealt with," a senior party official told IRIN. Police are reportedly still investigating the matter.

"We are hoping for a quick resolution to the rape claim, which is very serious," said ANC spokesman Smuts Ngonyama.

It would be in the ANC's interests to resolve its political crisis as soon as possible, as campaigning for the local government elections, scheduled for March 2006, begins in earnest in the next few weeks, noted Dlamini. "They cannot go into an election with divisions. Should Zuma be charged, he will automatically have to step down."

The NEC statement reiterated its faith in the country's judicial process and rejected claims that Zuma was a victim of a conspiracy within the ANC.

The NEC also announced that the party would go on the road to explain its stance on Zuma.

"This is an acknowledgement that the divisions might destroy the party, especially as it is moving towards the local government elections," observed Dlamini.

The party realised it had to "show leadership, as it was silence on their part after the Zuma [fraud] probe became public which the former deputy president used to his advantage to drum up support for himself," said a senior ANC member.

Since the corruption allegations first became public more than three years ago, the Zuma camp has been on a campaign to win support from more radical members of the party and ANC's allies in the South African Communist Party and the mass-based Congress of South African Trade Unions.

The "left" has championed Zuma after falling out with Mbeki mainly over the "liberal" ideological direction of the country's economic policies, analysts say.