“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice …” — Gabriel García Márquez, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’)
South African political history might one day record that the fate of modern-day ANC presidents owes many parallels with the story of Buendía.
Ten years ago, after a fractious conference in Polokwane delivered the presidency of the ANC to Jacob Zuma, his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, faced his own firing squad in the form of the ANC itself. From the moment Thabo Mbeki lost the Polokwane conference, his position as leader of the country was a ticking time bomb.
Having lost the conference on the back of an ill-fated attempt at securing a third term as ANC president, Mbeki’s conviction that he should have been elected again polarised the party from the grassroots all the way to its top structures. As a result, a climate of antipathy towards him existed throughout the ANC. More importantly, as the Jacob Zuma slate had overwhelmingly won the key positions it dominated the national executive committee (NEC).
In 2008, the NEC then took the decision to instruct Mbeki to resign as the president of the country. Under political duress and facing considerable embarrassment through the parliamentary process, Mbeki acceded to the request.
The reasons advanced by the NEC at that stage were simply that the Nicholson judgment that implied interference by Mbeki in the state security apparatus was reason enough for him to resign. That reasoning was of course just the low-hanging fruit used to lend credibility to the recall.
The reality was that the “ngoku” brigade would have used any reason to remove Mbeki from office.
A lesser-ventilated reason was that his continued presence at the Union Buildings whilst Jacob Zuma ran Luthuli House would create “two centres of power” in the country. Today, 10 years later, Zuma has just been subjected to the same process. But unlike the Mbeki scenario, Zuma has resisted the process.
Key to his resistance is that the ANC has not advanced any cogent reasons for him to resign. And, if ANC treasurer-general Paul Mashatile is to be believed, the two centres of theory has been cited as a reason.
For the two centres theory Jacob Zuma’s counter-argument — admittedly not mentioned until now — is that the two centres of power do not materialise in the interregnum between an ANC elective conference and the general election, but rather only exists when an ANC president pursues a third term and holds on to the reins at Luthuli House. On the basis of this, Zuma has rejected the theory as a valid reason for a recall.
The other problem in this case is that Zuma believes that the ANC owes him reasons to motivate for his recall. In this case the political hypocrisy of the ANC is being exposed.
The reality is that there are multiple reasons the ANC could advance for why Zuma is not the most desirable candidate for leading a country. Yet in this case, all the credible reasons were sins committed long before Nasrec. And as we know, the ANC was at the forefront of insulating and protecting Zuma from the consequences of those sins. It fell to opposition parties and civil society to lead the charge of accountability. The ANC therefore feels it cannot advance such reasons to Zuma. In vintage Zuma style, he is exploiting this dilemma the ANC has plunged itself into.
I have long argued that an ANC recall process is far more damaging for Cyril Ramaphosa than Jacob Zuma. The fundamental problem with recalls by the NEC is that it simply depends on the prevailing consensus within the NEC at that stage.
In the 2008 recall, the prevailing consensus was that Mbeki had to be recalled ngoku. The use of the Nicholson judgment only provided a veneer of reasonability. Back then, the ANC missed an opportunity to crystallise the conditions under which its powers would be invoked in the future to facilitate a recall.
The NEC still doesn’t have these guidelines and, as we had in 2008, the recall is being driven by the prevailing consensus within the current NEC and — to a lesser extent — external stakeholders.
The problem is that if this state of affairs prevails, the forces that did not support Cyril Ramaphosa’s candidacy for presidency are in a unique position to stage a coup of a similar nature in five years’ time.
In this scenario, having recovered from the humiliation of Nasrec, the alliance of Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, North West and Mpumalanga will simply seek to ensure that they have the majority of the NEC after the next conference. Once that happens, then — as is the case now — they can influence the consensus within the NEC and facilitate a recall of Ramaphosa as ANC president and as president of the country.
Ramaphosa needs to be able to avoid this by championing the crystallisation of the guidelines underpinning an NEC recall. Failure to do this will condemn his presidency to the same fate that befell Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. And if one remembers the utterances of ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule in KwaZulu-Natal recently, the project to “reclaim” the ANC is now a five-year goal rather than the current 10-year project.
Having done so much work to achieve his long-held ambition of running the ANC and the country, it would be tragic if Ramaphosa’s tenure were to be the most abrupt of them all. Zuma will be gone soon anyway. Ramaphosa’s preferred route should be parliamentary rather than consensus-based.
Ramaphosa has to think beyond the Zuma years and puts an end to this governance by hysteria, because if he doesn’t, he will be the biggest victim of the current chaos.
Mistakes in dealing with the Zuma exit will leave us all with the prospect of a David Mabuza presidency much sooner than we all thought.