Dangerous times, indeed, in the ruling party for those falling foul of Mbeki

Has fear and paranoia gripped the leadership of the ANC leading up to their crucial elective conference in December?

Is this latest development in the country another skirmish in the drawn-out war between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma for the presidency of the ANC?

Is it open season for back-stabbing and the betrayal of comrades and friends?

There seems to be some evidence that this is the case. On Monday, Mbeki suspended the man who is responsible for chasing down some of the country's worst gangsters and criminals - Vusi Pikoli - the national director of the National Prosecuting Authority. Considering Mbeki's history of firing people, it seems almost certain, barring minor miracles, that Pikoli will never head the NPA again.

Pikoli, as is widely known, heads the body that is prosecuting Glenn Agliotti, the alleged gangster linked to businessman Brett Kebble's murder. He is also the man responsible for deciding whether to charge ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma and is supposedly investigating alleged links with criminal syndicates of the national Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi.

The NPA has been slow in getting Zuma into the dock, having had the case thrown out of court recently while the other court actions between the NPA and Zuma are plodding along slowly. Government has in turn backed Selebi, calling for evidence before any inquiry can be launched. Some argue that the slow pace of the prosecution against Zuma is a clear motive for suspending Pikoli.

As the drama unfolded this week, Mbeki was seen sitting quietly alongside his Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at the UN general assembly and later rang the bell at the close of trading at the New York Stock Exchange.

Back home government officials were scrambling to explain what had happened to Pikoli.

First up was Themba Maseko, the head of the Government Communication and Information System talking of an "irretrievable breakdown" in communication between Pikoli and Justice Minister Brigitte Mabandla. An inquiry would follow led by a judge, recommendations made to Mbeki and parliament consulted.

There is more than a measure of similarity in this situation with that of former National Intelligence Agency boss Billy Masetlha when he was fired by Mbeki over the hoax e-mail saga. Mbeki also cited a breakdown in "trust" between the two men. He acted after recommendations from his Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils.

Then after Pikoli's suspension, director-general in the Presidency, the Reverend Frank Chikane, did a very unusual thing - he invited leaders of all the major political parties to a briefing at the Union Buildings in Pretoria to explain what had happened.

Chikane took a slightly more nuanced tack from that given by Maseko and told the opposition's leaders that there were constitutional problems with the way in which the NPA operates. Some of these issues have been raised before during the Khampepe commission, resulting in the strange situation of Pikoli reporting to both Justice Minister Mabandla and Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula. Pikoli's predecessor Bulelani Ngcuka reported directly to the president.

Ngcuka, it must be recalled, resigned because of the saga over the prosecution of Zuma.

Chikane said the constitutional requirements of the national director "have not been fulfilled and the president had to intervene" because this country had "crime and we don't want any dysfunctional ways in which people operate in terms of the law affecting the justice system".

Political party leaders were not satisfied and said the briefing raised more questions than answers. Chikane's briefing certainly did not clear up the one important question. So if there is a structural problem, why suspend Pikoli? Why not simply launch a probe into the matter first, make recommendations and then take action.

Later Mbeki would reportedly tell the SABC that there was little else he could do but suspend Pikoli because of the conflict between him and Mabandla and that crime-fighting was being hampered.

With no flesh to the spin by officials, the public and political parties have been left to speculate. A clearly partisan, but interesting view has been offered by Bantu Holomisa, himself no stranger to the ANC political infighting and back stabbing.

The UDM leader thinks a decision has been made by a camp in the ANC leadership - read Mbeki - to take no action against Zuma for now. This would ensure Zuma will head into the December conference with a cloud hanging over his head. To charge him now, would shift the nation's attention on to him, and "raise his profile".

But one thing's for sure: these are dangerous times. Nothing is certain and fear and paranoia grip the land.