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South Africa

After Mbeki

Friday 26 September 2008, by Sean JACOBS

Responding publicly to calls from his Communist party and trade union allies to depose Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma – speaking in the wake of the court decision that ruled that he had been the victim of a political plot by Mbeki – insisted that there was no need “to beat a dead snake”. Most observers had interpreted the repeated calls for Mbeki’s resignation since Zuma became party leader as mere posturing on the part of Zuma’s supporters. By the weekend, however, a humiliated Mbeki had announced his resignation as South Africa’s second democratic president.

While Mbeki’s ousting has sparked waves of political resignations, he probably had more admirers outside South Africa than within. He was George Bush’s “point man” in Africa and was a favorite of the international markets. But on the things that affected the majority of people in South Africa the most – Aids and poverty – Mbeki presided over disastrous policies.

One of the key aims of the Zuma ANC faction was to achieve state power. They have achieved the first step in that direction now. Mbeki, who also personified for them what was wrong with the ANC’s leadership style (secretive, vindictive, personal and distant rule), is now gone. As they cannot install their man in the presidency as yet (for one thing, Zuma is not a member of parliament), they’ll ride out the next seven months until elections in April 2009. Pressure will be on them to act presidential, promote national unity and unite their own party. They are not in danger of losing the elections. The current batch of opposition parties are sadly irrelevant in South Africa, save in one of the nine provinces, the Western Cape, but the ANC would want to shore up its legitimacy among South Africa’s poor (historically ANC supporters) who increasingly associate the ANC with rapacious wealth accumulation, corruption and power struggles and may withdraw from electoral politics.

The party may have weathered the first round in that transition: ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe’s pending inauguration as caretaker president until general elections has been welcomed without exception. Though he is close to the Zuma camp, he has a reputation as a mediator and comes across as above the fray.

The longer challenge is keeping the Zuma camp together. A motley crew of charismatic personalities with a penchant for speaking out of turn or prone to ridiculousness is at the front of the anti-Mbeki group. ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema has said he’d “take up arms” and “kill for Zuma”. He also accused the country’s judges of being “drunk” and “taking decisions in beer halls”. Zwelinzima Vavi, the head of the trade union federation Cosatu, has uttered some of the same sentiments.

For now, the ANC Youth League (whose leaders publicly criticised Motlanthe when he defended the independence of the judiciary) has been reined in, according to reports from South Africa. The ANC Youth League was also quick to put its name to a media statement that implored members of Mbeki’s cabinet not to follow Mbeki.

Zuma’s alliance with the trade unions and communists are tenuous. The ANC president is defined more by his “anti-Mbeki” persona to these activists, rather than for his own politics, which are hardly left wing on a range of issues, including sexual politics, and though he has been exonerated of any specific corruption charges, he is still associated with corruption.

Since Mbeki’s resignation, Zuma – playing to the markets – has promised that the government’s economic policies would remain unchanged. Though Zuma’s reassurances are predictable, it’s not the kind of blank cheque on policy that his allies want to hear as their support for Zuma is largely premised, in their public rhetoric at least, on a critique of Mbeki’s economic policies. Once the raison d’etre for the Zuma camp – their antipathy for Mbeki – runs its course, it is unclear what the grouping’s future is.

Cosatu and the SACP also have problems of their own. Blade Nzimande, the SACP leader, purged anyone suspected as either pro-Mbeki or critical of Zuma. So did Cosatu, whose members may be wondering what the federation’s primary business is.

Despite all the talk of “unity” from Zuma, expect the purging of cabinet and provincial and local government and party leaders perceived to be close to Mbeki, to continue. Since Mbeki’s resignation, at least 11 cabinet members, including deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka – who owed their jobs to Mbeki – have followed him out of government. Others who resigned include close Mbeki allies like Alec Erwin (public enterprises) and Mosiuoa Lekota (defence).

The Zuma camp succeeded in having the leadership of the pro-Mbeki Western Cape provincial government leadership removed. (The nine provincial governments are akin to state governments elsewhere.) Two other provinces with pro-Mbeki leaderships have been targeted next: the North-West and Eastern Cape. These struggles are often violent. In the Western Cape, a provincial leader was stabbed in the neck. Over the weekend, police reported three men shot (one in the head and two in the leg) at an ANC meeting in the Eastern Cape.

And Mbeki is still not going quietly into the night. He gave notice to the constitutional court on Monday to file an appeal – both in his personal capacity and as head of the South African government – against the judge’s decision in Zuma’s latest trial that the executive may have interfered in Zuma’s trail. Some of his supporters, largely limited in his home province in the Eastern Cape, have threatened to form a breakaway party (it worth remembering that he received 40% of delegates’ votes at the December 2007 ANC national conference). But first they’d have to convince Mbeki to leave the ANC.

* From Amandla! website, Tuesday September 23 2008 15:31 BST:

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