Call for Mr Cool …

There is much about the ANC’s sacking of Thabo Mbeki that the Mail & Guardian finds disturbing.

Like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, we are far from convinced that such a radically disruptive step, so close to elections and the end of Mbeki’s term, was necessary. It has meant not just the replacement of South Africa’s president but of key ministers in his Cabinet, not to mention the seismic effect on the markets of Trevor Manuel’s procedural resignation.

There are strong indications that hardliners in the new ANC leadership capitalised on Judge Chris Nicholson’s judgement to force through a coup that has been at the top of their wish list since the Polokwane conference — and that revenge was a large motive.

It is significant that those in the vanguard of attacks on Mbeki at the ANC’s weekend national executive committee meeting, including businessmen Mathews Phosa, Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale and communist leader Blade Nzimande, all had personal axes to grind. It is hard not to conclude that their motive was to humiliate Mbeki publicly, rather than to allow him to step off the political stage quietly.

Even the official justifications are worrying. ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe tells us that the aim was to end infighting by removing one of the poles of disunity in the ANC, suggesting that he thinks the interests of the party and South Africa are one and the same. He also indicated that the trigger for the toppling of Mbeki was the National Prosecuting Authority’s announcement that it intends appealing against the Nicholson judgement, presumably on the theory that Mbeki ordered this as part of his campaign against Jacob Zuma.

Will the new president, Kgalema Motlanthe, come under pressure from Luthuli House to lean on the NPA not to appeal? If so, this would constitute political interference in the law enforcement machinery of exactly the same kind that Nicholson warned against. How safe is the NPA from interference by the new ANC bosses?

But the hard fact is that Mbeki and his era are history — and that, barring some unforeseen development, Zuma will be South Africa’s next president. It may be unpalatable that the ANC president is off the hook on the 16 charges the NPA has formulated against him, but Nicholson’s controversial judgement has put paid to a trial, at least in the medium term. The implication is that South Africans must look to a future dominated by Zuma, or, at least, by his camp, and prepare themselves to fight to uphold the values of our liberal-democratic Constitution in that context.

There are some positive pointers. For all his faults, including his deep social conservatism and weak grasp of policy, Zuma is a consensus politician who is quite different temperamentally from Mbeki the divider and polariser. He does not suffer, for example, from Mbeki’s racial hangups. And in sharp contrast to Mbeki he has shown that he can acknowledge error and apologise. One can draw some comfort from the fact that he opposed the axing of Mbeki and chose the decent and level-headed Motlanthe as caretaker president in preference to the waspish parliamentary speaker, Baleka Mbete, who is additionally tainted by her handling of the Travelgate scandal. Mantashe may have blotted his copybook by branding the judiciary ”counter-revolutionary”, but he is essentially a pragmatist.

But the question is: who now calls the shots in the ANC and who will call them during the eight-month interregnum before next year’s election? It is not auspicious that the hardliners won the argument in the party’s national executive committee over Mbeki’s fate, beating back not only Zuma but Motlanthe and Mantashe. President Motlanthe and his executive can expect to enjoy little discretion — indeed, he will be expected to attend, and account to, the weekly office-bearers’ meetings at Luthuli House.

Whether such overweening party dominance of the executive will continue under a Zuma presidency remains to be seen. But the fear is that he will enter the Union Buildings trailing so much political debt that he will be a puppet dancing on other people’s strings.

South Africa desperately needs a period of stability in which the Cabinet and government departments get on with tackling the country’s real challenges: poverty, joblessness, crime, corruption, environmental damage and resource scarcity.

In theory Mbeki’s departure could dampen the raging conflict in the ANC, but the danger now is that his marginalised supporters in the party’s top echelons and on the ground in some provinces will hive off into a new political formation claiming to represent the ANC’s true traditions. A crack in the monolith would enhance the pluralism essential to democratic systems, but could also trigger a new and heightened round of political conflict and violence.

Cool heads, respect for democratic institutions, an end to inflammatory rhetoric and sensible policies are what the country needs now — and what Motlanthe and the ANC leadership must provide. South Africa is frankly sick and tired of the upheavals in the ruling party and its habit of foisting them on the hapless citizens.

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