Friday, October 10, 2008



Johannesburg, South Africa
Daily Naition in Nairobi

October 9 2008

With the possibility of South Africa’s general elections in April next year finding ANC leader Jacob Zuma’s complex corruption case un-concluded, the party might have settled for Kgalema Motlanthe in a sleight of foresight

The summary dismissal of Thabo Mbeki as president of South Africa happened with speedy precision. It was, or so it seemed, a triumph for the Jacob Zuma faction within the ANC.

But what is the Zuma faction?

While the storm clouds were gathering before the ANC’s five-yearly conference at Polokwane last December, it became increasingly clear that there would be a titanic struggle for control — not the soul — of the party.

And there was Jacob Zuma, the man who was most clearly identifiable as not-Mbeki.

His was the face around which all those disaffected with Mbeki could gather. And there were many of them with many good and diverse reasons.

On the day the xenophobic violence erupted in South Africa, for example, Mbeki got on a plane for Japan and sushi diplomacy. Forget the crisis at home. He had done it often enough before because he liked it there far more than he ever liked it here. He was the best foreign minister South Africa never had.

This theme dominated his presidency. To the rest of the world he might have appeared dignified and statesman-like. To many South Africans, he seemed cold and aloof, indifferent to the problems, fears and aspirations of ordinary people.

Mbeki the globetrotter

He would happily jet off to try to solve the problems of Zimbabwe, but would not confront pressing issues at home. He tolerated, for example, his long-term exile comrade, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, as Health Minister despite her risible views on the HIV and Aids pandemic which is devastating the country.

He happily fired her deputy for telling the truth about an appalling child mortality scandal in the Eastern Cape, thus supporting Tshabala-Msimang, who denied that anything was wrong there. And this was but one example of Mbeki’s penchant for making enemies.

And when you make enough of them and together they become strong enough, you are ruined. Polokwane was the first visible chapter of that ruin; his summary dismissal as president of the country, the final scene.

Mbeki created an impressive gallery of enemies. Chief among them, possibly, is Nelson Mandela. He made the mistake of turning his back on Mbeki, who promptly outmanoeuvred him and seized power.

There is Cyril Ramaphosa who, urban legend has it, was the person Mandela wanted to succeed him.

Ramaphosa had an impressive track record for the top job. He nursed the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) from its infancy in the harshest days of apartheid to become the dominant force in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), itself the best-organised and by far the largest constituency in the tripartite alliance linking it with the ANC and the South African Communist Party.

He was also the ANC’s lead negotiator in the tortuous three-year process that led to the first democratic elections.
Ramaphosa is a person of great ability, wit, warmth and intelligence — a man of the people.

And after his removal from political office he launched a more than successful business career and is now a rand billionaire: A man with deep pockets, who probably has a long memory. A man who would certainly know that revenge is a dish best served cold.

Insiles versus old ANC.

Then there are the countless “insiles”, those who remained in country as activists and who were jailed, beaten and imprisoned for their trouble. They had every right to believe it was their effort, sustained over many years, which ultimately toppled the apartheid governmentAnd it was from their ranks in the last decade of apartheid that the ANC’s ranks and fighting strength were significantly boosted.
Yet Mbeki clung to the “old ANC-in-exile” team, those who had spent decades abroad in a secretive — of necessity — and authoritarian organisation. Of his Cabinet of 30, 24 were exiles and only six could properly be called “insiles”.

The “insile” and exile cultures were miles apart, and so here was another constituency that could be rallied behind Jacob “I’m not Mbeki” Zuma. Then, of course, there are the opportunists in the ANC. They, by definition, will flip-flop in whichever direction self-interest leads them. They flipped away from Mbeki once the writing was quite clearly on the wall and trooped into the Zuma camp, whatever that is.

Mbeki was out as ANC president. Then came a damning judgment as part of the Zuma corruption matter, in which Pietermaritzburg High Court judge Chris Nicholson implied that Mbeki might have politically interfered in the case.

The ANC acted savagely and swiftly and for the second time in less than a year, Mbeki lost a presidency, this time of the country.
With Mbeki out, who was really in?

Was Zuma waiting for the corruption charges to disappear – which haven’t – rather than lead the country with this cloud over his head? If so, that would be odd, because a case this complex cannot be resolved in time for the general elections in April next year.

Calmed the Polokwane mob.

Whatever happened in the back rooms, ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe emerged as president of the country.

Before Polokwane, only people in the ANC and union movement knew much about Montlanthe, a quiet and reserved figure. At the chaotic conference, though, his was the one voice that could calm what can only be described as a mob baying for Mbeki’s blood.

Since then he has become a more familiar public figure, a dignified and studious man who chooses his words carefully and deliberately. For a public nervous after the downfall of Zuma and the increasingly intemperate language of some of his supporters, he — as he did at Polokwane — calms nerves.

And there is a powerful case in both arithmetic and logic for him to remain in the post after the election, quite apart from the Zuma corruption allegations.

He has impeccable “insile” credentials, from his days as a black consciousness student activist to a spell on Robben Island with Mandela and other ANC luminaries; to the trade union movement, where he succeeded Ramaphosa as head of the NUM. He can thus attract a broad and well-organised constituency, which Zuma possibly could not.

And so one shouldn’t be surprised, come next year, if the same pair of feet which are now planted under the presidential desk remain there.

So was Zuma Lenin’s “useful fool”, proudly riding the stalking horse behind which the real new centre of power was hiding? Probably.

Such is the transition from liberation movement to political party. It might be painful, but it is unavoidable. Welcome to the world of real politics.