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South African Opposition Leader Says Split in Ruling Party Benefits Country's Young Democracy

South Africa's ruling party has suspended a former chairman who is threatening to form a breakaway group. The African National Congress, or ANC, has announced the suspension of Mosiuoa Lekota, a former South African defense minister, late Monday. ANC chief Jacob Zuma says the party will not tolerate members who promote factionalism, warning that "history has been unkind" to those who left the party.

Lekota is a supporter of former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who was forced to resign this month under pressure from ANC leaders and Zuma supporters. Lekota announced last Wednesday that he and his supporters were "serving divorce papers" on the ANC and warned of a possible split in the party. Lekota accused the ANC leadership of promoting tribalism and turning their backs on democratic traditions.

Tensions within the ANC have been high for months because of the political conflict between Zuma and former president Mbeki. The rivalry goes back to 2005, when Mr. Mbeki fired Zuma as South Africa's deputy president because of a corruption scandal. Zuma later defeated Mr. Mbeki in the ANC's leadership election last year. Then, party leaders successfully pressured Mr. Mbeki to resign.

Zuma and his supporters acted after a judge accused Mr. Mbeki of interfering in the corruption case against Zuma. The judge also dismissed the charges against Zuma on technical grounds. The move could clear the way for Zuma to serve as South Africa's president if the ANC wins elections next April as expected. However, it remains unclear whether the National Prosecuting Authority will re-file corruption charges against Zuma.

Among those closely watching developments within the ANC is Helen Zille, head of the opposition Democratic Alliance Party or DA. From Cape Town, she spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about the divisions within South Africa's ruling party and the criticisms made by former party chairman Mosiuoa Lekota.

"For South African democracy, it is a positive set of developments. It is very important that we don't have one, all-powerful, ruling party with centralized control. And that is why the breaking up of the ANC is important in the development of our democracy," she said.

In a statement, Zille said, "We share Mosiuoa Lekota's rejection of resurgent tribalism in the ANC." She explains to VOA.

"What I mean by that is that the Zulu people are tending to support Mr. Jacob Zuma and Xhosa speaking people are tending to opposeā€¦Zuma. And that is a resurgence of more an ethnic solidarity than we've had before," she said.

Asked whether she's happy to see a split in the ruling party, the leader of the DA said, "I go from the point of departure what is best for South Africa. And the biggest risk to an emerging democracy that is trying to come out of a period of authoritarian rule is single party domination."

Zille said that such a situation has existed in neighboring Zimbabwe, which has led to the collapse of that country's economy. "We want a multi-party democracy in South Africa. We want part to be able to change hands through the ballot box and we're in the process, in fact, of establishing a multi-party systems here."

She said that Lekota is indeed in the process of forming a breakaway opposition party, but adds that won't affect the Democratic Alliance. "He's trying to be more ANC than the ANC. He's not going to appeal to opposition voters. He's going to appeal to disaffected ANC voters. I think over the next five years, we will come together and we will establish one broad-based non-racial party that stands for the open opportunity-driven society instead of the closed patronage-driven society of the ANC," she said.

Would she form an alliance with Lekota? She said, "We're committed to forming coalitions after the elections (in April) with every party that we can to keep the ANC below 50 percent of the vote and ensuring that they don't govern everywhere."