/ 26 September 2008

Begin the ascent to a better place

Distance makes the heart grow fonder. Or at least gives it a sense of perspective. So, being in London last week had its compensations, though the atmosphere was no less ”febrile” — undoubtedly the most overused adjective of the week.

The perspective on South Africa was provided by the extraordinary crisis in global financial systems. As the politics of revenge played out in South Africa like a Jacobean tragedy, billions of pounds, dollars and euros were wiped off the value of some of the most venerable members of the world’s corporate establishment.

The billions were then poured desperately straight back in by the central banks of the United States, the United Kingdom and the EU to prevent an implosion of free market capitalism that might be the source of Schadenfraude, if not outright merry celebration, were it not for the fact that the real losers are the pensioners, smaller mortgage holders and the multitudes of service-sector workers whose employment will be the most immediately dispensable.

The perspective comes too from the scale of the irony. One of the most right-wing governments of all time — that of George W Bush — has just perpetrated what, in financial terms represents the two largest acts of government nationalisation in history. The first was the bail-out of giant insurance group AIG. The second the decision to create a government agency to purchase, with public money nogal, the so-called ”toxic debts” of the biggest mortgage banks.

Meltdown Monday and the astonishing four days that followed saved British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, but were of no help to Thabo Mbeki. The Labour Party was on the verge of launching a ruthless palace coup to remove the hapless Brown on the eve of his party’s annual conference this week. But the banking crisis gave Brown’s careworn look a reassuring gloss and he lives to fight another day.

Had he gone, there would have been few tears; political parties must do what they must do. In a parliamentary system of Cabinet government like Britain’s and South Africa’s, where the head of government is not directly elected, it is the party that selects who sits at the head of the Cabinet table. Even more than the Labour Party, the ANC’s decision to remove Mbeki is about Luthuli House gaining control of government.

So why the shock and sentimentality attached to Mbeki’s sudden departure? Yes, it was messy and impatient, but Mbeki was the architect of his own political demise.

No tears, please. If anything, there should be some celebration of South Africa’s record since democracy: two presidents, two early departures from office. Not many postcolonial African states can boast that.

But the more pressing concern is: after Mbeki, what?

Will the ANC leadership’s newfound fondness for the judiciary prove to have deeper roots than mere satisfaction with Judge Chris Nicholson’s curiously tendentious description of a grand political conspiracy?

Speaking at the University of Cape Town this week on the topic of ”The Zuma Judgement: Constitutional Implications”, Wim Trengove, senior counsel for the National Prosecuting Authority in the Jacob Zuma case, pointed out that if Nicholson’s findings of political interference are correct then there are grave constitutional and possibly criminal consequences that must be pursued. If he was wrong, then unjustified harm has been done to the reputation of various people, including Mbeki.

However vexing for Zuma and his campaigners, it is therefore entirely necessary and appropriate that the Nicholson judgement be considered by the Supreme Court of Appeal and/or the Constitutional Court.

As parliamentary justice committee chair Yunus Carrim said in his response to Trengove, we now need to have a considered debate about how the National Director of Public Prosecutions is appointed, the precise nature of the relationship between the executive and the NPA, and the role of Parliament in the setting of prosecutorial policy.

Second, can President Kgalema Motlanthe use his natural diffidence to heal and soothe the deep divisions within the ruling party and stabilise this increasingly damaging second presidential transition for the good of the country?

I hope the nadir of this embittered power struggle was Tuesday’s fiasco when the ANC scurried to have a press conference to do what no political party or politician should ever do, namely, deny a crisis. At the end of last year I wrote that things would probably get worse before they got better. They have. Enough is enough; now things must improve before irredeemable harm is done.

The country has slipped a long way back in the past two years. Now it must begin a slow but hopefully steady ascent to a better place, where South Africa is governed in a more inclusive and open manner, better able to overcome deep socio-economic divisions and with an astute strategy to protect the South African economy from the turbulence of last week. With a renewed reputation it will be allowed to contribute to the international discussion on a remodelled global financial system.

Motlanthe has been presented with an opportunity to show that he is the man for this task, not Zuma.

Click on the links below to listen to the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit at UCT panel discussion

  • Opening and Wim Trengrove’s address
  • Yunus Carrim’s response
  • Q&A session (including Lawson Naidoo, Deputy Secretary of the Ginwala Commission)