There has been a major falling out between the South African president and his controversial home affairs minister, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Analysts say Mr. Buthelezi's role in the national government could be over.
The relationship between Mr. Buthelezi and his boss, President Thabo Mbeki, has never been great, and it has been deteriorating for years.
The two men hit a low point this week when the president's legal team sued Mr. Buthelezi's Home Affairs Ministry to force it to withdraw some regulations that the president said had not been properly approved. The president won the case. Mr. Mbeki was enraged over what he saw as extreme insubordination by the Home Affairs minister. The angry president said Mr. Buthelezi should have to pay for the court dispute out of his own pocket. Political analyst Judith February, of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, says their relationship may have broken down beyond repair. "I think that it is no secret that for a long time Mangosuthu Buthelezi has been unhappy with his position in the cabinet, that he has felt undermined," she said. "He has had a particularly difficult relationship with Thabo Mbeki, especially around the Immigration Act, and we have just seen that very graphically displayed this week. It does seem to be possibly the last straw, breaking the back of the camel. I think that relationship has deteriorated quite badly."
Mr. Mbeki and his African National Congress are virtually sure of victory in next week's general election. The question is whether Mr. Buthelezi will still have a place in government.
He has been home affairs minister since the end of apartheid 10 years ago. He comes from the opposition Inkatha Freedom Party and has been kept in cabinet in large part to keep the peace in his restive home province, Kwazulu-Natal.
With two-thirds of the seats in parliament, the ANC does not need a coalition to govern nationally. But Kwazulu-Natal is just about evenly divided between ANC and Inkatha, and there is a long history of violence between them.
Ms. February says the fear has been that if Mr. Buthelezi is not kept happy, his supporters could unleash a torrent of bloodshed. "So for the ANC it is about keeping that peace in Kwazulu-Natal. It is about pacifying Buthelezi," she said. "We know that before the 1994 elections, the Inkatha Freedom Party was not wanting to participate. So he's a very important player and I don't think can be ignored. The question now is whether South Africa's democracy in 10 years has matured enough for the ANC to say well, we can take the risk and we can let go of the IFP support within the cabinet."
The Home Affairs minister himself has been sending mixed signals about whether he wants to remain in the cabinet. He has struck up alliances with several other opposition parties, most recently the far-right-wing Freedom Front Plus, an Afrikaaner nationalist group. It is hard to imagine a South African political party working with the Freedom Front and the ANC at the same time.
But Mr. Buthelezi has also refused to rule out serving another term as a minister if the president asks him to. Before an election rally near Durban about two weeks ago, he put the decision squarely in the president's hands.
"Well after the election my term will have expired anyway, so it is not a question of there being a rift between us. But it is a question of my term having expired because I was appointed for five years. And my term expires," he said. "And I am serving at the pleasure of Mr. Mbeki. So I cannot then say whether I will serve in government or not, because that is purely his decision."
Political analyst Steven Friedman of the Center for Policy Studies says he doubts Mr. Buthelezi would turn down a national cabinet post if he is offered one. But Mr. Friedman says the Inkatha leader cares more about winning full control of Kwazulu-Natal, which his party has been governing in alliance with the ANC.
"Buthelezi likes to be a national minister, etc. But governing Kwazulu-Natal is so much a core of what the IFP is about that I am sure it would supersede everything else," he said.
Judith February of the Institute for Democracy says both the Inkatha Freedom Party and its leader benefit from being in the cabinet. And she also says South Africa benefits from having such a public example of two parties working together, despite their differences.
"I think it would be a pity if either the IFP were to walk out of the cabinet, or if the ANC were to say we do not need you," she said. "I think that part of the essence of what we try to build here is that inclusivity and I think it makes for quite interesting politics."
An editorial in the national newspaper This Day says squabbles between Mr. Mbeki and Mr. Buthelezi have all but paralyzed the Home Affairs department, and have spilled over into cabinet clashes as well as the courts. But, the newspaper notes, their personal battles have not played themselves out on, what it calls, the former killing fields of Kwazulu-Natal.
The paper says it is imperative that the mounting conflict plays out in words, not deeds.