In politics, as in life, chickens usually come home to roost. Fourteen years of failure in leadership and management at the Department of Home Affairs. Nine years of self-indulgent denialism in the Presidency. Six months of Umshini Wami and the violence and human rights promiscuity it implies. Not to mention the failure in intelligence — this country is riddled with spooks, but why was the government apparently so surprised by the lighting of the tinderbox?
Most of what follows in this column I wrote two weeks ago in the United States, as a reaction to Helen Zille’s call for an early general election. For once I found myself in agreement with the Democratic Alliance, but due to a technological failure which does not bear detailing, the words did not reach the pages of the paper.
Sadly, I now find that my reasoning has been buttressed by the shocking events of the past fortnight. The governmental dithering that was a shameful accomplice to the distressing inhumanity has served to confirm my original hypothesis: that the members of the government are in office, but no longer in power.
One of them, the minister of justice, could not even summon the courage to give evidence before the Ginwala inquiry and sent along her deputy instead. Pathetic. Others attempt to conceal incompetence behind the claim that a ”third force” was to blame for the outbreak of xenophobia. Lame.
Can anyone say clearly what South Africa’s immigration policy is, one that enabled such vast, incendiary numbers of people into the country? Was there any strategic thinking? I recall Pallo Jordan trying to win a public debate on Zimbabwe policy a few years ago saying that once a million refugees crossed the border, Pretoria would take decisive action.
To be fair to Jordan, he wasn’t in government at the time, but the African National Congress (ANC) national executive committee of which he was a senior member stood by as what turns out to have been a policy of ”regime entrenchment” drove the numbers well beyond Jordan’s threshold.
If any good is to come of the current crisis, it must be that the administration-in-waiting recognises its responsibility to take office without further ado. Disabling for the public service and simply too harmful to the public interest to be tolerated any longer, it is time for a change of government.
Many ministerial minds are elsewhere — not least on refining their CVs. I have it on good authority that at least two Cabinet ministers — Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi and Sydney Mufamadi — have applied for or are actively pursuing positions in the United Nations, as is Mbeki’s right-hand woman, Mojanku Gumbi. Meanwhile, the mandarin class of directors general are also preparing for departure. Paralysis has set in. It is little wonder that the response to a national emergency was so anaemic.
So the lesson must be heeded. The ANC must hold its national conference a good deal closer to the general election. Imagine that instead of the usual two months from the presidential election in November to the investiture in January, the US was to ask president elect Barack Obama or John McCain to wait 16 months until March 2010 to assume office!
No, in the circumstances, the gap between Polokwane and the election in April or May 2009 is way too long. Wounded political animal that he is, Mbeki should be put out of his misery.
There is a complication. The president is not an MP. A constitutional quirk means that having first been sworn in as an MP, the person elected by the National Assembly as its first post-election function immediately ceases to be an MP.
This curious provision now assumes greater significance. Hitherto it has tended to encourage Mbeki’s aloofness from Parliament. Now it creates an obstacle for those who would like to depose him.
He cannot have the seat removed from beneath him by his party’s executive because he does not occupy a seat. He cannot simply be ”recalled” by ”his” party; expelling him from the party should he fail to heed an order to resign is not an option.
The president could be removed by a resolution supported by no less than two-thirds of the Assembly (section 89 of the Constitution) or through a vote of no confidence supported by a simple majority (section 102).
Given the division in the ANC parliamentary caucus, the first is probably unattainable and the second seems politically implausible. Which takes one back to Zille’s dissolution-of-Parliament idea (section 50), which also requires a simple majority.
While it may suit the new ANC leadership’s own interests to sit back and gently prepare for government in mid-2009, it is manifestly not in the country’s interests.
Beyond government there are two other profound questions to be extracted from the current outrage.
First, with the conspiracy of silence around xenophobia now truly pierced, is it not time to have as calm a debate as possible about the ethnic taboo that is South Africa’s own? What are the ethnic fissures in this society; how precarious is the non-ethnic dream of the Constitution and what sort of leadership will enable us, like Mandela’s, to soar above?
Second, having shown such depth of concern for the plight of non-South Africans, can the wealthiest members of this society, especially the white community, now extend compassion to their poorest compatriots, whose anger at the injustice of prolonged gross inequality is the real cause of the social upheaval and is the scar that contorts the face of the new South Africa?