Monday, September 29, 2008

Of felled kings and triumphant insurgents

So long, Thabo

South Africa has a new president. Yes, that is correct - you blinked and everything has changed. Here's how it happened and why.

The bolt from the blue was Judge Chris Nicholson's ruling in favour of Jacob Zuma. In his judgement, Nicholson stated that the ANC president's case was mishandled by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and that the institution was subject to political meddling by the national executive.

Nicholson cited incidents such as the statement by the former National Director of Public Prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, as evidence that the NPA was not immune to political interference. Ngcuka announced at a media briefing in August 2003 that despite there being a prima facie case of fraud and corruption against Jacob Zuma, the Authority would not charge the then-deputy president at the same time as his financial advisor, Schabir Schaik (who was later convicted in 2005). This, Nicholson argued, was "baffling" as it not only sullied Zuma's name, but did not afford him the opportunity to defend himself in the courts.

Ultimately, the case against Zuma was thrown out and neither his guilt nor innocence was established. Zuma still has unanswered questions about his financial affairs, but for all intents and purposes he is legally free to pursue his presidential ambitions. Mostly however, the judgement was an indictment of Thabo Mbeki's leadership as it highlighted his willingness to use the instruments of state to pursue political vendettas.

Zuma's acquittal led to much triumphalism in the new ANC, vindicating the many Zumistas who believed their man was a victim of a conspiracy to keep him out of office. As South Africa was digesting the implications of this news there came a catalytic moment - the NPA was considering appealing the Nicholson judgement. To the many in the ANC, this was a declaration of intent to reverse the outcome of the ruling. The increasingly strident ANC Youth League, led by Julius Malema, publicly called for Mbeki's head.

An emergency meeting of the National Executive Council (NEC) of the ANC was called to decide on Mbeki's fate. Zuma, preferring a more moderate option, pleaded with the high ranking members to hold fire. "There is no point in beating a dead snake," he said, protecting his opponent - albeit with a rude backhander. Kgalema Motlanthe, the deputy president of the ANC, and Gwede Mantashe, the secretary general also implored members to allow Mbeki to see through the remainder of his term until April 2009 in the interests of stability.

Their attempts were unsuccessful. The NEC, spearheaded by the alliance partners, and the "coalition of the wounded", (all those who had felt Mbeki's knife in their backs over the years such as Ramaphosa, Phosa, Sexwale and Masetlha) ensured his fate by voting to "recall" the president following all-night deliberations on Friday 19th September.

Although the ANC had had enough of the interregnum of the nine months since Polokwane, it was also motivated by a desire to snuff out any potential counter-moves by Mbeki and the NPA. As Mantahse claimed "The biggest worry of the ANC had been the question of a reversal of the closure of the chapter [that the Nicholson judgment seemed to have promised]." A cynical and opportunistic move indeed.

But how were they going to get rid of the president? Would he have to be impeached? Would ANC parliamentarians be forced to issue a vote of no confidence in the house?

No such steps were necessary. Mbeki, stoical as ever in a televised address, announced his resignation to the country on Sunday 21st September 2008 (click for full text of the speech). He defended his legacy of sustained economic growth and robust international engagement. Importantly, Mbeki also insisted that he and his cabinet had never interfered in the work of the judiciary as Judge Nicholson had inferred, and that his government had always sought to respect the courts, even if they disagreed with some of its decisions.

Hello, Kgalema

With Mbeki on his way out, a new dilemma arose: who would be his successor? As Zuma was neither a member of Parliament nor of the executive he was not entitled to the presidency. After much speculation that Baleka Mbete, the pugnacious speaker of parliament, would take the helm, the ANC decided that the mild-mannered and appeasing figure of Kgalema Motlanthe would be better entrusted as the presidential steward until elections could be held in the new year.

So everything was sorted out then? Not a chance. Before Motlanthe could be sworn in on Thursday 25th, a third of the cabinet resigned. This they did in part out of loyalty to the ousted Mbeki as well as a show of deference to the incoming Motlanthe to choose his own cabinet. Some, such as Ronnie Kasrils, Essop Pahad, the Moleketis (Geraldine and Jabu) were gone for good; others would be reshuffled (e.g. Tshabala-Msimang and Bridgette Mabandla). Despite the insistence that this was a minor procedural matter, the resignations took the ANC top brass by surprise. This also prompted much uncertainty in the financial markets; especially with Trevor Manuel's brief absence.

This close to the presidency

Clearly many people in the ANC were unhappy with the way that the president was so publicly humiliated and it will take a long time before their grievances are adequately addressed. Rumours are rife that disaffection is so high that some are considering forming a break-away party. This is no more than conjecture at this point, but it is obvious that there are serious divisions within the ruling party.

The power plays of presidential ambition and the nonchalant attitude towards the interests of the country shown by the ANC have distanced many of the electorate from the organisation. Evidence for this, as the Sunday Times pointed out this weekend, is not merely anecdotal as approval ratings for the Congress are dismally low. Consider that if elections were held tomorrow, a mere 27% of respondents would vote for the ANC.

These are disorderly and absurd times for South Africa and the months leading up to next year's polls show little sign of being any different.


  1. You have managed to explain a very complicated situation in manner that is both exciting to read and easy to understand. Well done on another triumphant article.

  2. Thanks, Mark. Despite my earlier derision of summary, I think it is good to have the facts laid out for posterity's sake.

    On triumphalism, Mbeki had this to say in his resignation speech: "We should never be despondent if the weather is bad, nor should we turn triumphant because the sun shines,"

    This was widely seen as a coded message to the Zuma crowd not to get too buoyant after their recent victory.

    I think the words of Nick Cave are also appropriate for the former pres:

    "Yesterday the sun was shining but you're finding the sun it
    Don't shine all the time
    A winter day suddenly came your way
    And you ran into your mind."


  3. Great to read! Thanks for the very engaging summary of the past fortnight's politimania.

  4. Thanks guys.

    I think South Africa should change its name to the Republic of Politimania because that's all we ever seem to be going through.

    There has been much speculation about Motlanthe being a possible 'third way' candidate for the presidency in 2009-14. Do you folks think that this is a possibility? I would love to hear thoughts on the new pres and his ambitions.

  5. I can't see Motlanthe keeping his position unless Zuma (1) screws up horrendously or (2) goes to jail. And both of these eventualities seem rather unlikely. But... 6 months ago I would have dismissed out of hand the prospect of Mbeki's ouster before the end of his term. The unpredictable always happens, as Thatcher always liked to say.

  6. Indeed Mike.

    With the benefit of hindsight these events seemed so obvious, as my linear summary shows. On the contrary, everyone was living day to day not knowing what the hell to expect - even in the highest levels of the ANC.

    I think Motlanthe will walk a difficult line. He will have to make painful decisions on a number of key issues very soon: the Zuma case and the NPA's appeal, a possible Schaik pardon, the issue of the reinstatement of Vusi Pikoli (who did not entirely escape the knuckle-rapping of the Nicholson judgement). All these decisions will have major consequences within the party and the country.

    I think Motlanthe has positioned himself very shrewdly over the last couple of years and he should not be underestimated. But yup, all this is pretty much conjecture at the moment.