South Africa’s political system is in turmoil. A long-running power struggle between President Thabo Mbeki and his former deputy, Jacob Zuma, saw the Zuma-camp taking control of the governing political party, the ANC. Three weeks ago the ANC’s executive committee, now controlled by the Zuma-camp, fired Mbeki and appointed Kgalema Motlanthe as caretaker president until the 2009 elections.

Mbeki went quietly. But Mbeki’s supporters, estimated to comprise 40 percent of the ANC, are restless. There are signs the ANC might split with former Defence Minister, Mosiuda Lekota, leading disgruntled right-wingers out of the party.

So what has led to this turmoil and what are its likely outcomes?

The causes of the turmoil lie in Mbeki’s policies and style of government. Mbeki, as leader of the ANC-right has been working to systematically build a black elite through his Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policy. This has created a prospering black middle class and a group of affluent businessmen, called the “Gucci comrades”, who depend on ANC patronage and crony capitalism for their good fortune. But at the same time, ANC promises to uplift the majority of blacks out of poverty were forgotten. In fact unemployment and poverty expanded under ANC rule. Herein lie the seeds of conflict between ANC-right and ANC-left.

Mbeki’s approach to left-wing dissent was to buy off dissenters with government jobs and patronage. Dissenters not accepting the buy off would have their careers destroyed. In this way Mbeki made sure no leader could emerge to mobilize the country’s poor. For years Mbeki stabilized his party’s rule in this way, and with the ANC solidly entrenched in power, corruption grew.

A key person making the system work for Mbeki’s was his right hand man and “fixer’, Jacob Zuma. But Zuma became a liability when he was accused of rape and corruption.

Mbeki’s mistake was to fire Zuma, because he was a man who knew too much about how the Mbeki-system worked. Try as he might, Mbeki was unable destroy Zuma in the way he had destroyed so many others before. Instead Zuma manoeuvred himself into becoming a rallying point for the ANC-left.

When the courts tried to pursue Zuma for corruption the ANC Youth League threatened to go to war and said they would “kill” for Zuma. The case against Zuma finally collapsed when Judge Chris Nicholson accused Mbeki of using the legal system to harass his opponents. Dating back to the 1980s Nicholson was a left-ANC activist. Nicholson’s ruling triggered Mbeki’s dismissal.

Mbeki’s dismissal dramatically raised the political temperature. The question now being asked is whether the ANC will split.

A good news scenario would be that Lekota succeeds in splitting the ANC. With elections due in April 2009 this would create conditions for a real political opposition party. It would not matter if Zuma were leader of the new government or leader of the opposition – at least South Africa would have a real opposition, something that has been lacking since 1994. This would be good for democracy.

A bad scenario would be that Zuma entrenches the left-ANC in power through an Mbeki-style system co-option, patronage, and fear.