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In this essay commissioned exclusively for the Mail & Guardian, Thabo Mbeki biographer Mark Gevisser reflects on the former president’s annus horribilis and the uncertainties left in the wake of his unceremonious exit
“You common cry of curs — I banish you!
And here remain with your uncertainty —.
There is a world elsewhere!”
With these words, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus storms out of Rome, after having been exiled by the tribunes of the people.
The play of the same name is one of Thabo Mbeki’s favourites, and I could not stop thinking about it as I watched his downfall over the past year.
Coriolanus was banished from Rome for refusing to bend to the will of the people. Similarly, Mbeki was banished from the ANC at Polokwane for his perceived high-handedness and aloofness, which came across as callous and disconnected. His alleged victimisation of Jacob Zuma might have been the rallying cause, but this accusation fell on fertile ground because of his perceived lack of responsiveness to his comrades and their aspirations.
Mbeki performed the spectacularly self-destructive feat at Polokwane of telling the very people whom he wished to vote him back into office that they were a rabble, not worthy of being at the conference in the first place—suggesting that they had been easily misled and manipulated because they had “very little familiarity with the history and traditions of the ANC”. So he confirmed to the delegates what the Zuma camp had already told them: he was an elitist who was contemptuous of them because they were not as educated and as informed as he.
As I look back over the past year, the defining moment of Mbeki’s fall seems to me not to have been in September 2008, when he was fired from office, but 10 months previously, at Polokwane. And the realisation of this moment seemed to come not when he lost the election, but as he wrapped up his epic political report: “If we are divided, what divides us?” he asked.
“You!” came the answer, shouted—somewhat uneasily—from various corners of the floor. Mbeki looked up, a flicker registering across his habitually impassive features. He tried his question another way: “If we are divided, what should we do to address this challenge —?”
The delegates gave Mbeki his answer: “Go! Go!”
A few minutes later there was respectful, if restrained, applause—and then the open rebellion of “Umshini Wam!”.
Mbeki and his supporters had characterised the Zuma crowd as “howlers”, as “hooligans”; that “common cry of curs”. Even now, a year later, one of the mobilising tactics of the new opposition Congress of the People (Cope) is to claim this behaviour—like the crude attacking style of Julius Malema—to be anathema to the movement. It remains to be seen how effective this approach will be for Cope, but the evidence suggests that what South Africans euphemistically call “robust politics”—the shouting past rather than talking to one’s opponent—has caused the statistically insignificant but symbolically powerful desertion from the ANC of the black middle class.
But at Polokwane, at least, Mbeki’s failure was that he was unable to see that the “traditions” honed in exile—mission-school politesse in the service of rigid military hierarchy and “democratic centralist” control—no longer applied in the same way in a free, democratic South Africa. Zuma—ever the canny intelligence operative—understood this: his victory was based on his ability to have his ears to the ground and thus to be able to project himself as responsive, accountable, a man of the people.
In contrast, Mbeki’s belief against all evidence to the contrary that he would prevail was a vindication of one of the most trenchant critiques of his administration: his disconnection from his electorate, exacerbated by the insulation that inevitably comes with high office.
I was at Polokwane and, like most observers present, I witnessed it as both exhilarating and brutal: the rough practice of democracy but also something of a regicide.
However much Mbeki might have been the architect of his own downfall, it was deeply distressing to witness the ire with which he was rejected. As I watched a younger comrade gratuitously insult a venerable elder—“Go back into exile if you don’t like it,” he spat—I felt I was witnessing not just generational rebellion, but the turning in on itself of a large and unwieldy family that had been held together too long by mutual interest rather than affection.
This reminded me of the extent to which the ANC was governed by atavistic emotion rather than the logic of a modern political party, even now, at this supposedly democratic watershed.
Later, as I listened to the accounts of the 14 hours it took the NEC to oust Mbeki after the Chris Nicholson judgement, I was struck again by how much the decisions of the ruling party were coloured by grievance and how the desire for vengeance, even if self-destructive, governed the ANC’s decision to oust him.
At Polokwane and then after the Nicholson judgement, Mbeki was not merely defeated and then fired. He was cast out of his family—even if he claimed that the “values” of this family had been usurped by parvenus. It should not be surprising, then, that he crashed after Polokwane, and that his behaviour seemed only to vindicate his detractors.
In January 2008, he was asked by the SABC whether the concerns expressed at the conference were legitimate. “No. Not at all,” he responded, explaining that he avoided public places such as shopping malls because “as soon as people see me, it becomes very disruptive”. In his last State of the Nation address in February he used Dickens—“it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”—to acknowledge, finally, that the South Africa he governed was in a state of distress and confusion. But, as Jeremy Cronin has acutely observed, he lost this opportunity to take the nation into his confidence and retreated into his default position: everything would be all right; he was in control.
He was not. He all but disappeared from the public eye during a period in which—unencumbered by the need to seek office again—he might have been unprecedentedly bold.
It had been expected that he might step down voluntarily or at the very least draw the new ANC leadership into government in some kind of intra-party coalition. He did neither and instead continued to govern with only the minimum consultation necessary with his new political leaders at Luthuli House. Most provocatively, he went ahead with the controversial appointment of a new board to the SABC.
If Mbeki did “crash” after Polokwane, this was evident in his reaction to the two events that turned the nation in on itself in early 2008: the power crisis and the wave of xenophobic violence that left at least 42 dead and thousands more displaced. Mbeki did, in fact, apologise publicly for the former and also made a strong statement against the xenophobic attacks. But in both cases his response was late and distant; his executive authority barely discernible.
Unlike Zuma, for example, he did not visit the affected areas of the violence, leaving the country instead to address a conference in Japan entitled Towards A Vibrant Africa: A Continent of Hope and Opportunity. More tangibly, his decision to call in the military came several days too late. There is a strong case to be made that the state could have done more to stop not only this wave of random violence on a scale not seen since the destabilising days before the 1994 elections, but the moment of intense national gloom and shame that followed.
Once more, I could not but hear the echoes of Coriolanus: “I banish you! — There is a world elsewhere.” The ex-president’s “world elsewhere”, perhaps, was a refuge he had sought from domestic criticism throughout his tenure, in the arena of global diplomacy: he spent much of 2008 in Zimbabwe, and in his singular obsession to solve that country’s crisis—particularly given the hostile reaction he attracted for his refusal to condemn Robert Mugabe after the June 2008 elections—he seemed determined to salvage his legacy on the international stage, as a counterweight to his domestic rejection. As has been often noted, one of the tragic ironies of the Nicholson judgement that saw his firing is that it came the day after he brokered the Zimbabwe peace deal. Retrospectively, however, it is evident that this deal was impossible to implement anyway.
“And here remain with your uncertainty”: 2008 became the darkest year yet in post-apartheid South Africa—because of the power crisis, because of the xenophobic violence, because of a gathering recession that began to hit consumers even before the international credit crisis of September. Property prices plummeted, the rand fell and there was evidence of the biggest emigration wave since the early 1990s.
After a decade and a half of political stability, the uncertainty arising from Mbeki’s defeat at Polokwane played a significant part in this upheaval. South Africa had entered a second transition, a period not unlike the transition to democracy in the early 1990s: huge expectations from one sector of the population, great anxiety from another; an old executive under Mbeki that appeared to have lost its will to govern, a new one in the wings under Zuma trying to assert its authority and needing to reassure jittery markets.
One of the strongest arguments made in favour of Mbeki’s ousting, during the NEC debate over his future following the Nicholson judgement, was that the president’s “recall” would put an end to the uncertainty of this awkward interregnum. But despite the admirably smooth inauguration of Kgalema Motlanthe, and the skilled way the acting president—for that, really, is what he is—emphasised continuity while making some sharp and much-needed changes (particularly in health, justice and safety and security), the interregnum remained and the uncertainty grew.
Much of this uncertainty is, of course, bracing. The windows have been opened. Speaking publicly about the ANC for nearly the first time in years, Cyril Ramaphosa said that the party after Polokwane was “almost like a breath of fresh air” where there were “no more holy cows”.
Running a campaign out of Luthuli House rather than a government out of the Union Buildings, the new ANC leadership is not yet locked into the exigencies of bureaucracy; it is in its electoral interests to be open and approachable, willing to talk—and listen—to anyone. This is in marked contrast to the defensive posture of the Mbeki government.
Most noticeable has been the changing profile of the country’s legislature. During the nine months between the fall of the guillotine at Polokwane and the roll of Mbeki’s head after the Nicholson judgement, the new ANC cannily realised that the one way it could assert its authority over the president was through this body’s constitutionally prescribed role of executive oversight. Miraculously, the ANC caucus, which had been a rubber stamp for a decade, began doing its job—arguably even to a fault: sending back draft legislation, challenging executive appointments, demanding accountability from Cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats.
Had ANC legislators finally found their voices now that the allegedly oppressive lid of Mbeki’s political control was removed, or were they acting as the blunt instrument of the Zuma ANC’s newfound power, setting out to limit and even humiliate Mbeki? And the bigger question: is there a new accountability in the ruling party, or have the windows merely been thrown open for some spring-cleaning before being slammed shut again as the new ANC hunkers down into power?
Particularly in the way delegates slavishly followed either an “Mbeki list” or a “Zuma list” at Polokwane, there are indications that this might be a mere changing of the guard within the ANC rather than the birth of a much-needed new political practice; that new systems of patronage are merely establishing themselves as loyalties shift from one group of leaders to another. The clearest indicator of this, post-Polokwane, was the sham way that Parliament “consulted” over the dismantling of the Scorpions, when it was clearly following a resolution issued at Polokwane. The unit may indeed have been used by Mbeki to target his adversaries, but ANC parliamentarians failed to offer any compelling reasons why they had disbanded the unit entirely rather than immunising it from political interference.
Much of the unease of this second transition—the anxiety, but also the expectation—has, of course, to do with Zuma himself. And Mbeki stands accused of having bequeathed to the country this particular uncertainty—because of the way he mismanaged both the investigation into Zuma and the political fallout arising from it, and because he did not step aside at Polokwane for someone else to take on Zuma. It is worth recollecting that much of the Zuma vote at Polokwane was an anti-Mbeki one. Mbeki’s decision to make himself available for a third term as ANC president mobilised support against him by people who were at best ambivalent about Zuma, but who were determined that the ANC should not fall victim to that graveyard of African democracies: the ruler-for-life syndrome.
Now that Zuma leads the ANC, the uncertainties grow. Primarily this: will our next president be running the country and standing trial simultaneously? And if he lands up not standing trial, at what cost will this be to our constitutional order? Other questions follow: what is Zuma’s actual commitment to the rule of law? Is he deploying the well-worn demagogic two-step of social conservatism and political radicalism just to win votes, or will the dance set the tone of his new government? How will he steer economic policy through the straits of an international economic crisis while still meeting the needs of his own increasingly expectant constituency?
What, ultimately, does Zuma actually believe and to whom will he be most indebted—the populists and the left who brought him to power, or the businessmen who bankroll him? Or, having been all things to all people during a campaign—hey, he is a politician after all—will he be able to ascend to statesmanship, forging consensus between sectors of the ANC alliance (and broader society) that have been warring for over a decade now?
As I look back on 2008, I find myself troubled by one particular question about Zuma: why, after so intense a leadership battle, did he not take the job himself after Mbeki was fired? The argument that Motlanthe has more experience is nonsense: Motlanthe had been appointed to the Cabinet barely two months previously, while Zuma had been a provincial minister for five years and deputy president of the country for another six. No: the truth is that Zuma declined the presidency because he was not, yet, in control of the ANC he now led—as was evidenced by the way he lost the debate over Mbeki’s fate (he did not want him to be fired)—and because of his own ambivalence towards power.
Zuma has yet to prove that he is driven by the kind of visionary mission that powered his predecessors, Mandela and Mbeki, rather than by the appetites of his many sponsors and the need to overcome his own travails. And despite the personality cult that has developed around him, he remains divisive, even within the ANC. The now dominant “Zuma camp” finds itself needing to manage its own fault lines: between those who would, as they publicly said, kill for the ANC president, and those who had backed him to get rid of Mbeki but now worry that they are saddled with a candidate too compromised to run the country effectively.
Where, in all of this, is Mbeki himself? When Coriolanus was banished from Rome he raised an army among Rome’s enemies, the Volscians, to sack his home town. Many in the ANC see Mbeki as the hidden hand behind Cope and accuse him privately of doing something similar. Thus the shrillness and anger from many ANC leaders and comrades: working off the paradigm of a family or a secret society, they perceive Mbeki and his apparent agents as what would have been known in the old days as verraaiers. This is self-deception: the ANC midwifed Cope itself, by firing Mbeki unnecessarily, seven months before he would have stepped down from power anyway.
At the time of writing Cope has an alleged 400 000 members, although its leaders are inarticulate, its brand untested and its policies undeveloped. Yet the birth of this new political party is surely one of the most salutary benefits of our current uncertainty: the collapse of the de facto one-party state and its replacement by the possibility of a real choice for black South African voters. The ANC can no longer lay claim to being the sole legitimate representative of black South Africans and must compete in the open market of ideas that is democracy.
Mbeki’s entire life was the ANC and the collapse of the old struggle hegemony is probably the last thing for which he would want to be remembered. But wherever Mbeki’s “world elsewhere” might be—an African leadership institute at Unisa; a life as an international mediator; a redoubt in Riviera where Cope’s lieutenants gather under cover of night—the birth of this new political party is very much part of his legacy, whether he had a hand in it or not.
Mark Gevisser’s abridged and updated second edition of Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred will be published by Jonathan Ball in 2009 He is also working on a new book, The Second Transition
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