SOUTH African police have foiled a plot by suspected right-wing Afrikaner extremists targeting a conference attended by president Jacob Zuma and dozens of top government officials.
Four men aged between 40 and 50 were arrested on Sunday. A police spokesman yesterday said there was evidence the men were planning acts around the country and not just at the African National Congress (ANC) meeting in the central city of Bloemfontein.
The vast majority of South Africa’s whites accepted the ANC’s victory in the 1994 election that brought Nelson Mandela to power and ended decades of white-minority rule. However, a tiny handful continues to oppose the historic settlement.
“Their acts are widespread. We arrested them in different provinces,” police spokesman Billy Jones said.
ANC spokesman Keith Khoza said preliminary information suggested the men were planning to bomb the marquee where Mr Zuma and 4,500 delegates are holding a five-day meeting to chose the ANC’s leadership for the next five years.
“This would have been an act of terrorism that South Africa can ill afford,” Mr Khoza said.
The Federal Freedom Party (FFP), a fringe group fighting for self-determination for the white Afrikaner minority, confirmed two of those arrested were FFP members, but denied the party had a role in the suspected plot.
“We were not involved and do not associate ourselves with their actions,” FFP national secretary Francois Cloete said.
In July, a former university lecturer was found guilty of orchestrating a 2002 plot to overthrow the ANC and assassinate Mr Mandela – now 94 and in hospital recovering from a gallstone procedure and receiving treatment for a lung infection.
There was a heavy security presence at the Bloemfontein meeting yesterday and the few vehicles being allowed on to the university campus hosting the event were being searched by police and sniffer dogs.
The conference is set to give Mr Zuma a second mandate to lead the party and – given the ANC’s dominance at the ballot box – another five-year term from 2014 as president of Africa’s biggest economy.
About 4,000 candidates will vote for the ANC’s leadership.
Mr Zuma’s nomination for the post of party leader yesterday was met by wild cheers from delegates, in marked contrast to the muted applause that greeted his only challenger, the deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe.
Mr Motlanthe withdrew from the race to become Mr Zuma’s number two, virtually handing the position to former union leader Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s second-richest black businessman who is returning to politics after a decade away.
Ramaphosa supporters were confident of victory when results of the internal election are announced today.
“The numbers are in our favour and we are going for it,” said one backer said. “It’s almost a done deal. Cyril is going to be our next deputy president.”
The rise of Mr Ramaphosa is likely to be seen as a pro-business move by a party still deeply rooted in socialism, and may help assuage the fears of international ratings agencies that have recently downgraded South Africa.
Mr Zuma’s administration has been criticised for failing to overhaul a rigid labour market and fix a broken education system that is eroding the country’s long-term competitiveness.