Jacob Zuma, the leader of South Africa’s ruling party, strengthened his hold on power over the weekend as his right-hand man assumed a cabinet post to run government business in the dying months of President Thabo Mbeki’s rule.

The appointment of Kgalema Motlanthe – a veteran of the armed resistance to white rule and one of Mr Zuma’s most influential allies – came as local media reported that the governing African National Congress had dismissed two state premiers loyal to Mr Mbeki.

Political limbo has prevailed in South Africa since Mr Zuma, who is on course to take over as president next year, ousted Mr Mbeki as ANC leader in December.

Mr Mbeki is nearing the end of his second and final term as president. Such is the ANC’s electoral dominance that Mr Zuma is all but assured of victory in elections due by the middle of next year – provided his aspirations are not scuppered by a pending corruption trial.

Mr Motlanthe is the ANC’s deputy leader and enjoys a reputation as an adroit backroom operator. He is widely tipped as a leading candidate to step into the breach should Mr Zuma be forced to stand aside.

His portfolio will include powers currently wielded by the deputy president, Mukoni Ratshitanga, spokesman for Mr Mbeki, said.

Mr Motlanthe’s role will allow him to oversee the transfer of control from Mr Mbeki to the Zuma faction, which draws its support from the left wing of the ANC, the Communist party and the country’s formidable trade union federation.

The ANC did not respond to a request for comment on reports that the party’s executive committee had removed Nosimo Balindlela and Ebrahim Rasool, state premiers of the Eastern Cape and Western Cape respectively and both Mbeki loyalists.

In spite of Mr Zuma’s hints that he might relax Mr Mbeki’s conservative fiscal policy, business leaders say their prime concern is a resolution of the uncertainty over the presidential succession in Africa’s biggest economy.

In a sign of the vitriol produced by the struggle at the top of the ANC and the pursuit of Mr Zuma through the courts, Julius Malema, leader of the ANC’s youth league, recently said he would “kill for Zuma”.

Mr Mbeki is under fire at home and abroad. Rising inflation and stubbornly high unemployment have sharpened the anger of the majority of South Africans who feel they have seen scant benefits of his stewardship of the economy.

Neither have Mr Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” approach to the crisis in Zimbabwe and his refusal to condemn the abuses of Robert Mugabe’s government earned him many friends.

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