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Mbeki's rule in limbo as townships burn

world Updated: May 27, 2008 17:50 IST

President Thabo Mbeki faces an uphill battle to remain politically relevant in his last year in office after his failure to contain an eruption of violence that has killed dozens of foreign workers in South Africa.

Mbeki, who has seen his power and prestige shrink since losing the ruling ANC leadership to Jacob Zuma in 2007, was already under fire for failing to prevent a crippling power shortage when the mobs went on the rampage this month.

At least 50 people have died some were burnt alive and more than 25,000 fled to refugee centers. But Mbeki was largely invisible as the xenophobic violence mounted, only addressing the nation on Sunday night, two weeks after the bloodshed began.

"It's unclear now who is running the country," said Frans Cronje, deputy chief executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations. "There needs to be a changing of the guard."

Mbeki's performance has further spooked investors, who fear Zuma and his labor allies will nudge the government to the left and loosen the fiscal restraint that many credit for a nearly decade-long expansion in Africa's largest economy.

South Africa's volatile currency fell sharply last week before Mbeki deployed the army to help quell the violence.

"The rand remains uncertain and the xenophobic violence could spark a political crisis and put into question the legacy of Mbeki's presidency," French bank BNP Paribas said in a recent research note.

There are growing calls for Mbeki to quit or be ousted before his final term ends after the general elections in 2009. Much of the pressure is coming from within the African National Congress and its leftist allies.