Mbeki's shock as ANC turns on him He has often seemed to take South Africa's presidency and leadership of the ANC for granted. But Thabo Mbeki learned yesterday where the real power lies, writes Chris McGreal from Polokwane Monday December 17, 2007 Guardian Unlimited It is said that Thabo Mbeki was born to be president. Driven from his childhood in a deeply political Eastern Cape family toward a life dedicated to the struggle against apartheid, and then to the pinnacles of power in a liberated South Africa, he wielded that power as if it was his due. Critics were treated as enemies of the people, ordinary citizens were regarded as too lowly to understand the high workings of government or issues such as Aids, while the Union Buildings - the seat of the presidency - exuded arrogance and aloofness. Above all, the president treated his own party, the African National Congress, as if it were no more than a vehicle to get him where he deserved to be. Yesterday, Mbeki was reminded where real power lies. After enduring more than two hours of appeals from him for unity and integrity, and implicitly to retain him as ANC leader at the opening of the party's conference, the rank and file turned. South Africa's president sat stunned as, minutes after he stopped talking, the hall erupted into a belligerent frenzy of dancing and singing in support of Mbeki's arch foe, Jacob Zuma, who looks set to seize control of the ANC. The 4,000 delegates rebuffed attempts by the party leadership to curb the humiliation of the president, continuing to sing the Zuma theme song, Bring Me My Machine Gun, and booing Mbeki's political allies as they stepped up to the podium to plead for order. Mbeki sat next to Zuma, facing the crowd, looking broken and drawn and as if he were far away from what one South African newspaper today described as a "rebellion". The formal election of a party leader still has to take place in the next day or so but it is hard to imagine that Mbeki's already thin hopes of retaining power were not dashed in the vast white marquee on the grounds of the university of Limpopo. The signs of just how belligerent the delegates felt were there earlier in the day. As cameras panned from one cabinet minister and high ANC official to the other, there were boos instead of the ritual clapping. Some of the loudest derision was reserved for Essop Pahad, Mbeki's close longstanding friend and cabinet minister who is widely regarded as a political thug who does the president's dirty work. The cameras stopped panning. The conference chairman, Mosiuoa 'Terror' Lekota, lost control from the moment he was put in charge. Delegates refused his instructions to keep quiet, shouted him down, demanded someone else take over and jeered him. None of the senior ANC watching this in astonishment could remember such raw hostility toward the party leadership. "I must say the atmosphere is not what we're used to in an ANC conference," said Jeff Radebe, a member of the party's national executive. "The tension was very visible. You could cut it with a knife." Yet in a country so dominated by one party, the rebellion inside the ANC is the nearest thing Mbeki has confronted to democratic accountability in more than a decade. He has won elections hands down, but opposition parties are small and no match for the organisation that most South Africans regard as their liberator. The scale of his electoral victories only appeared to further alienate Mbeki from the people and his party. He centralised power, surrounding himself with longstanding friends as aides and ministers who reinforced his sometimes paranoid style of governance. His controversial Aids policies - justified by semantic arguments while hundreds of thousands died - along with the rise of a new super rich black elite while millions lived in poverty, and Mbeki's alienation of the ANC's traditional allies in the trade unions, distanced him further from ordinary people. Mbeki's attempt to hold on to the ANC leadership even though he is constitutionally obliged to step down as South Africa's president after two terms only reinforced the view that he is power hungry. His last ditch attempt to shore up support with his opening address to the conference turned into a turgid two and a half hour speech widely regarded as too little too late. At times he sounded like a hectoring schoolmaster admonishing his charges, at others as if he knew it was all over and he wanted to set out his record for posterity. In the end, he failed to connect with those who needed to win over. Mbeki lost the party on his own but he has been brought down by what the South African press is calling a "Zunami". Jacob Zuma was written off as a political force after Mbeki sacked him as deputy president more than two years ago when he was named in a corruption scandal around the country's biggest ever arms deal. But Zuma has engineered a remarkable political comeback by organising among those who Mbeki neglected and through being able to connect with the poor and marginalised in a way that the president could not. Some of Zuma's backing may prove to be transient. There are those who quietly admit that they only support him as a means of removing Mbeki. They do not expect that Zuma will ever become the country's president because they expect him to be charged with corruption over the arms deal and the ANC to find another candidate for the 2009 election. But that is some way off, and for now it is Thabo Mbeki who is grappling with the humiliation of rejection.