President Thabo Mbeki, humiliated by losing the contest to lead the country's ruling party, on Friday ruled out the possibility of early elections and said it would be business as usual for his government.
Mbeki said he had no plans to leave office early, even though African National Congress delegates snubbed him and most of his allies in voting for party posts this week, backing controversial Jacob Zuma as the new party leader, along with Zuma's loyalists and others with leftist constituencies.
"I would expect the government to serve its term until the elections in 2009," Mbeki said at a news conference at government headquarters in Pretoria — his first public comments since Zuma trounced him.
Mbeki, 65, appeared relaxed, cracking jokes with journalists despite the defeat, which leaves him with no official position in the party he joined when he was 14.
He said there would be no change in his government's policies even though the 86-member National Executive Committee lurched to the left, with trusted lieutenants like the country's deputy president, defense minister and senior Cabinet ministers ousted.
Nelson Mandela's ex-wife, Winnie Madikezela-Mandela, who remains popular among leftists and the disaffected despite criminal convictions, topped the list of national executive body members with 2,845 votes when results were announced early Friday. She drew more support in Thursday's voting than sitting Cabinet members, and over 500 votes more than Zuma received earlier in the week in the race for party president.
Zuma faces charges
As ANC leader, Zuma is in line to be its presidential candidate in 2009 and would likely win, given the broad support the ANC enjoys. But the possibility of a corruption trial could mean political turmoil ahead for Zuma, the ANC and, potentially, the country.
The country's top prosecutor said Thursday he has enough evidence to charge Zuma in a bribery case. Zuma complained he was being tried in the media. He has long said he was innocent and accused prosecutors of pursuing him for political reasons.
Mbeki said Zuma should be "given his opportunity in court to state his case and prove his innocence."
"We have all insisted that the law must take its course," Mbeki said.
In a speech to the ANC national convention Thursday, Zuma promised to work well with Mbeki and sought to allay fears that he would take the economy leftward under pressure from trade unions, poor blacks and communists who backed his leadership bid. Zuma had rallied ANC members dissatisfied with Mbeki's market-oriented policies, which have brought steady economic growth but failed to lift the majority from poverty.
Mbeki is barred by the constitution from running again for president of South Africa. If he had defeated Zuma in the party race, he would have been in position to pick his successor.