There is a moment when you can sense the power draining away, when a point of no return has been reached and passed. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is facing that moment now in Britain, as a sense of staleness, sleaze and incompetence overwhelms his government. The prize that Brown has lived for — Number 10 Downing Street — and patiently waited for during the Tony Blair years, is about to slip from his grasp, just months after he attained it.
Imbued with an even deeper sense of destiny throughout his life, the South African president seems to have reached this point. There are, as the old adage goes, only two ways out of politics: death and failure; in the end, every politician will meet his or her Waterloo.
It is not all over yet — never, ever write Thabo Mbeki off — but there is an air of desperation around how some of his most senior lieutenants are conducting a public campaign on the leader pages of the national press: Alec Erwin in City Press on Sunday, Tony Heard, Essop Pahad’s spin doctor, on Monday. It’s as though they had just woken from a long slumber.
It’s probably too little, too late.
The emphasis, say Mbeki’s campaigners, is on the conference delegates rather than “the masses”. Perhaps by mounting an 11th hour political fight he will yet pull it off and pip Jacob Zuma to the post. But even if this strategy were to prevail, it reveals a fundamental flaw in Mbeki’s overall approach. In pursuit of power, which he obtained and sought to apply from the Union Buildings, Mbeki has lost the support of the organisation whose history and traditions are ingrained in his DNA.
In pursuit of government, he has lost his party.
The Notes for Political Overview presented to the party’s national executive committee (NEC) three weeks ago admit as much: “Except during elections, the ANC’s engagement with the mass terrain has been woeful.” Zuma’s uncluttered and effective campaign strategy has been to exploit this weakness, presenting himself as an uncomplicated anti-establishment figure who will open the door to the treasure trove of the state to those masses.
There is a massive sleight of hand at play here. Zuma may not have been born into privilege, nor did he enjoy a high-end education. Yet Zuma has long been a part of the ANC’s most senior leadership — in exile, on the frontline and, since 1994 and until recently, in government. Was he or was he not the deputy president of the republic until 2005?
Yet for Mbeki it is tragedy, pure and simple. The essence of tragedy is the blind spot that denies, or obscures, the subject’s greatest dream and leads to his or her downfall.
As Mark Gevisser’s biography shows, Mbeki was born to lead the ANC. It has been the sole driver of his life. He knows no other life. He will fight to the bitter end, of that there can be no doubt. There is no alternative.
As the reality that no magical third candidate will spring from the genie’s lamp sinks in, the political and financial establishment frets. For months South Africa’s captains of industry have been steeling themselves for this moment, earnestly seeking to persuade themselves that a Zuma presidency will be “business as usual”. Now the anxiety is distilled into one question: Will Zuma keep Trevor Manuel as minister of finance?
The question of what will happen to some of the most influential and able members of Mbeki’s administration is an important one. I have in mind Joel Netshitenzhe and Manuel. Will they go with The Chief, consigned to history as Zuma brings in his eclectic bunch of confidants and advisers?
If he is as savvy as ANC mythology makes him out to be, he may well retain some to help restore unity, which will be the initial imperative of his presidency, and to encourage confidence in the markets.
Or will it instead be a time of unfettered revenge? According to Gevisser’s account, Mbeki’s favourite Shakespeare is Coriolanus. My recollection of the play is regrettably hazy; all I can remember is that one by one the main characters kill each other off until there is a pile of bodies on the stage.
The gloves are off now and a strange new public candour prevails. There is Netshitenzhe’s brutal critique in the political overview of the failures of the NEC to prevent the “debilitation” of the past two and a half years and of “precepts observed in the breach”, and the plaintive missive of one of its most senior members, Zola Skweyiya (who along with others sat complacently by as the NEC failed), on these pages last week, poignantly regretting the pain of unprincipled division.
Mbeki, finally, speaks for himself in lamenting Zuma’s populism and lack of probity, albeit in typically convoluted form. Meanwhile, Zuma permits his people to suggest that Mbeki will have to go early if Zuma wins — a potentially massive tactical blunder.
Perhaps the ANC is approaching its Coriolanus moment. In just under two weeks, who will be left standing on the stage in Polokwane? To answer this question, one has to resort to the oldest cliché: a week in politics is a very long time.