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Thabo Mbeki's fall: the ANC and South Africa's democracy

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The political future of South Africa is in the balance. The "recall" of Thabo Mbeki from the nation's presidency by the African National Congress (ANC) has plunged the country - and indeed the ANC itself - into troubled times. To be sure, the transition from one administration to another was achieved relatively smoothly. The entire sequence of events took less than a fortnight: from the high-court judgment on 12 September 2008 that the state's attempts to prosecute ANC leader Jacob Zuma for corruption had been politically motivated, Thabo Mbeki's subsequent resignation, to the election by the national assembly of Kgalema Motlanthe as an interim president (since Jacob Zuma himself wishes to ascend to office only after receiving popular endorsement in the 2009 election).

Roger Southall is honorary research professor in the sociology of work unit, University of the Witwatersrand. Among his many books is (as co-editor) State of the Nation: South Africa 2007  (HSRC Press, 2007). He is editor of the Journal of Contemporary African Studies and contributes to the Review of African Political Economy

Also by Roger Southall in openDemocracy:

"South African lessons for Kenya" (8 January 2008)

"South Africa and Zimbabwe: the end of 'quiet diplomacy'?" (29 April 2008)

"The politics of pressure: the world and Zimbabwe" (28 June 2008)
Yet Mbeki remains determined to fight back against the court decision that precipitated his dismissal, and thus by implication to continue his lengthy fight with Zuma within the party. This, part of the wider intra-ANC turmoil unleashed by the resignation itself, guarantees that the period leading up to the scheduled elections will be tense.

If the ruling party's political hegemony was previously the glue which held the country together, then the clear divisions within the ANC - which have prompted an open debate, sparked by former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota, about the formation of a new party - now threaten to unravel its predominance. Indeed, if widespread worries about South Africa's trajectory (including its economic polarisation) were once calmed by the pipe-smoking, urbane, sophisticated side of Thabo Mbeki, then they are correspondingly fuelled by the arrival in office of a team led by his ANC rival. For Jacob Zuma is easily painted in very different colours: as a patriarchal, sexually-irresponsible, misogynist; a street-fighter who has used every means to block state attempts to bring him before the courts to face multiple charges of corruption; and someone who is only uncertainly in control of the coalition of the discontented which propelled him to the presidency of the ANC at the party's fifty-second national conference in Polokwane in December 2007.

South Africans' feelings are strongly divided. Sympathy for, and gratitude to, Mbeki are matched by sentiments that a ruthless, paranoid leader has orchestrated his own fall; equally common is the presentation of his presidency as a tragedy in which the leader's modernising impulses were ultimately undone by deep personal flaws, not least his inability to tolerate diversity and contrary opinion. In the same vein, while Zuma's coalition presents him as the champion of the poor and dispossessed, many of his critics fear that his triumph heralds the arrival in power of barbarians carelessly determined to destroy all that was good about Mbeki's Rome.

The contest over the significance of present events centres on the case that the ANC has put party before nation; that its actions and divisions are undermining the constitution; and that this lies at the root of Mbeki's fall. Three arguments predominate.

Party and state

The first argument has long been promoted by many critics of the ANC. This is that there is a fundamental incompatibility between its self-proclaimed history and identity as a revolutionary-nationalist liberation movement and its guardianship of South Africa's constitution. True, this widely admired document incorporates far-reaching social rights; but it simultaneously seeks to entrench important liberal-democratic virtues, notably a separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary.

The constitution thus presupposes a clear division between the ruling party and the state, whereas the ANC's doctrine of the "national democratic revolution" (NDR) propagates a gospel of "transformation" which urges the party to conquer the state. This doctrine envisages "motive forces of transformation" pitted against reactionary political and economic forces which, previously having benefited from apartheid, are now united against fundamental social and economic change. At the most explicit level, given that apartheid subjected the black majority to white minority racial domination, transformation requires the rapid attainment of "demographic representivity" in all significant institutions of state, society and economy.

Yet more intrusively, the doctrine also requires that the ANC to seize control of all the "levers of power". This implies the "deployment" of those (and only those) who are loyal to the ruling party's vision to ensure the "transformation" of the army, police, civil service, intelligence structures, judiciary, para-statals and agencies such as the regulatory bodies, the media, and the central bank. The logic is that the ANC regards those opposing its vision as not merely reactionary, but as actively subversive of transformation.

It is true that doctrine does not translate automatically into practice, and that in reality the ANC's position on the constitution is far more complicated and inconsistent. For a start, there is little doubt that the ANC continues to take enormous pride in the constitution, of which it was the principal architect. It may at times have leaned towards demagogic denunciation of opposition parties (notably the Democratic Alliance) as promoting sectional (often white minority, hence racial) and by implication, "illegitimate" agendas; but it has equally espoused the virtues of freedom of association, speech and elections.

Then again, whilst the party position-papers are routinely formulated in language and sentiment of which Lenin himself would have been proud, the ANC since 1994 has offered no serious challenge to capitalism or the capitalist state. Its internal divisions may revolve significantly around Mbeki's implementation of what the coalition behind Zuma decry as "neo-liberalism", but the projected change of course which a post-Mbeki administration signifies is far from a complete break; rather, it implies little more than a shift in a more statist and socially distributive direction. In any case, the increasing trade deficit, declining currency and slowing growth rates - in the context of straitened international circumstances - foreshadow an economic crisis that will curtail room for serious manoeuvre.

But even with these qualifications, it can still be argued that the ANC has eroded the gap between party and state, and that it has fairly systematically followed the path of the NDR by "deploying" party loyalists to the overwhelming majority of high positions in the state (most notably the bureaucracy, armed forces, para-statals and intelligence agencies). The paucity of human resources available to the ANC (albeit made considerably worse by clumsy racial engineering) in part may have made this inevitable. Yet it has turned out to have the dramatic outcome that when the ruling party has become divided, its divisions have been imported to the state. This has proved to have ultimately disastrous consequences for Thabo Mbeki himself - not least in the field of intelligence, where his zealous pursuit (and dismissal) of key players suspected of disloyalty have resulted in embarrassing court cases; with the most notable result of propelling Kgalema Motlanthe, now his successor as president, into the Zuma camp.

Politics and law

The second argument is an extension of the first. This is that the ANC's vision has severely compromised the independence of both the administration of justice and the judiciary itself. This is so because the transition to democracy demanded a "transformation" of the overwhelmingly white-dominated judiciary if the mass of the population were to regain a respect for the law.

The proponents of the argument concede that the ANC may have been formally respectful of constitutional provisions for the appointment of judges, ensuring that progressive white jurists have been appointed to such bodies as the constitutional court. But transformation has also brought with it spats within the judiciary itself which have taken on racial overtones, including implied white criticisms of (some) black judges on grounds of incompetence and black criticisms of discrimination against them by white ones. Such tensions, and the desire to hasten "transformation" of the bench - not least by eroding the autonomy of the judiciary - have added to worries that the ANC's ambition is to bring the judiciary to heel.

The way the judiciary was unavoidably caught up in the ANC's presidential-succession dispute fanned these fears. The origins of this development lie in Mbeki's apparent erosion of the independence of the national prosecuting authority (NPA). The NPA is charged under the constitution with investigating and prosecuting major offences against the law (including corruption). Throughout its short history, its investigative arm in particular (nicknamed "the Scorpions"), has managed to win widespread approval amongst the crime-weary South African public for its successes against corporate criminals and smuggling syndicate.

The NPA's popularity was consolidated with its pursuit of those involved in a 1998 arms deal, whereby the ANC entered agreement with various European companies for the supply of a formidable range of planes, ships and weaponry to modernise South Africa's armed forces. From the beginning the deal aroused notoriety because of its massive cost, inappropriate selection of purchases, revelations of executive interference in the allocation of contracts - as well as rumours and proven cases "commissions" (or bribes) paid by the arms firms and accepted by local actors, most of them with strong connections to the ANC.

Amongst the allegations emanating from the arms deal are that Thabo Mbeki himself was the recipient of funding of around R30 million, the vast bulk of which he channelled into party funding to pay for the ANC's general-election campaign in 1999. But it turned out that the focal point of the NPA's attempts to unravel the skein of corruption surrounding the arms deal was Jacob Zuma, who was deputy president both of South Africa and of the ANC.

These attempts reached their high point in September 2005 with the dismissal of the final appeal by Schabir Shaik, a close associate of the deputy president, against his conviction for fraud and corruption related to the arms deal. Shaik had, among other things, tried to use his influence with Zuma to secure contracts for the French arms company, Thint.

During the court proceedings, evidence was heard which pointed to Zuma's receipt of regular payments of money from Shaik. The courts interpreted this as indicating a corrupt relationship rather than (as was claimed) evidence of a longstanding friendship forged during the liberation struggle. Yet the NPA's director Bulelani Ngcuka had already given the Scorpions' own verdict: that it had "prima facie" evidence of corruption against the deputy president...but had chosen to not to prosecute him alongside Shaik as it could not be confident of securing a conviction. This statement left Zuma in a legal no-man's-land.

The reasons for the failure of the NPA to prosecute Zuma at that time remain obscure. Perhaps, as subsequent fraught efforts to bring him to trial have indicated, its evidence was less than complete (in which case Ncguka had clearly infringed on his rights by his announcement). Perhaps the NPA simply lacked the courage to take on the executive by prosecuting the deputy president, trusting that the revelations of the Shaik trial would strengthen its hand politically. Perhaps, again, it had been influenced in its decision by Mbeki, who - while nervous of confronting a popular figure who by now was garnering support for a run for the presidency - wanted to leave Zuma legally exposed.

Whatever the case, the upshot was that after the dismissal of Schabir Shaik's final appeal, Mbeki chose to "relieve" Zuma of his responsibilities as deputy president (rather than dismiss him outright) - on the grounds that his standing was compromised. At the time, Mbeki's action - announced in a broadcast to the nation - received overwhelming plaudits from within significant sections of the ANC and throughout the media. Within days, however, the party's national working committee issued Mbeki a sharp rebuff by confirming Zuma in his post of party deputy president. The battle-lines within the ANC were hardening.

Zuma's strength lay in the fact that he had become head of a coalition of the aggrieved -spearheaded by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). These groups were the ANC's partners in the "tripartite alliance"; but Mbeki had marginalised them on account of their strident opposition to his market-friendly economic policies, which they condemned as "neo-liberal", stimulating "jobless growth" and doing nothing to confront mass poverty. The ANC Youth League - whose ideological concerns were considerably less important than their leadership's personal ambitions - took the side of these two organisations.

Cosatu and the SACP (which had an overlapping senior membership) were peculiarly resentful of their weakened position. With good reason, they reckoned that trade-union structures were the most powerful instrument the alliance possessed for mobilising the vote at election time (not least because of the atrophy of ANC structures since the party had moved into government). Equally, they were less than sure of their wider popularity within the ANC (notably within rural areas). So when (around 2004-05) it appears that they decided to counter their marginalisation within the alliance by capturing the ANC from within, they recognised their need for a popular champion. It was thus that they fastened onto Jacob Zuma, whose elevation to the deputy presidency (and perhaps his need to stave off prosecution) had fuelled his ambition to replace Mbeki.

Thabo Mbeki was constitutionally limited to two terms in state office, but there were at the time no obvious claimants to his crown - for in his insecurity he had driven them to the sidelines of power. Zuma, it should be said, had no record of being on the left, and indeed had made no objection to Mbeki's economic policies. Yet against this, he brought to the left important attributes, amongst which were intimate knowledge of ANC structures and individuals, founded upon his having headed the party's intelligence structures in exile; an extensive following in KwaZulu-Natal; and a capacity to appeal to ordinary African voters through a mix of personal magnetism and attachment to African, traditionalist values. And boy, could he dance!

At no time did Mbeki hint that he would seek to amend the constitution to provide for his securing a third term as state president. Yet he did opt (fatally, as it turned out) to campaign - without declaring himself to be doing so - for a third term as ANC president, an ambition to which their was no formal barrier within the party's own rules. Why he made this choice remains unclear: but it was the route he chose, and ultimately it led him to Polokwane, when he was unceremoniously ejected from office by a majority of the delegates.

Mbeki's apparent strategy, both before and after Polokwane, rested upon the disqualification of Zuma from both party and state office through his prosecution for corruption. For this to occur, he needed to rely on the NPA. Yet this was not unproblematic, for while the NPA was zealous in pursuit of Zuma, its constitutional independence placed it beyond immediate executive control (and implied that its enquiries into the arms deal and other corruption could prove embarrassing for more than the ANC's deputy president). Mbeki's desire to rein in its actions culminated in the suspension of Vusi Pikoli, national director of public prosecutions (the NPA's boss) in October 2007; this followed Pikoli's obtaining a warrant for the arrest of national police chief, Jackie Selebi, on multiple charges of corruption. Selebi, whose alleged corrupt dealings had been extensively aired in the press, was widely thought to have enjoyed the president's friendship and protection.

Pikoli's suspension reinforced the Zuma camp's long-held conviction that the NPA's and Scorpions' independence had been undermined, and that the president was driving the campaign to prosecute the ANC deputy president. This was their refrain throughout the numerous court battles about complex legal procedures in which Zuma sought to avoid having to defend himself against corruption charges. Ultimately, these culminated in Zuma's appeal to the high court to have the entire prosecution set aside on the grounds that numerous of his rights had been infringed, and that the NPA's pursuit of him was driven by a political conspiracy.

The remarkable ruling by Judge Chris Nicholson on 12 September 2008 upheld Zuma's plea on both the counts at issue: that the NPA had failed in a legal obligation to allow Zuma to make legal representations against its decision to prosecute him, and (with even greater political sensitivity) that the NPA's independence in the case had been compromised by political interference. 

Nicholson's judgment did not pronounce on Zuma's innocence or guilt, nor did it rule out the possibility that the NPA could charge Zuma again in the future (although by that time he would probably have become president). What it did do was render Mbeki's status increasingly untenable. Although Zuma proclaimed initially that nothing was to be gained by beating a "dead snake" (implying that Mbeki could see out his term), his immediate support- base would have none of it. A hastily summoned meeting of the ANC's national executive committee (NEC) - dominated by Zuma supporters and those Mbeki had alienated - decided that he had to go, and Mbeki decided that he had little alternative but to accept his fate.

For many, this was a happy ending whereby the high court had ruled against a sitting president. In reality it was a far more ambiguous outcome. True, the Zuma camp could for the moment hail the triumph of legal process - even though not so long ago its expressed attitudes towards the judicial system and the law had been much more tendentious. (When Judge Hilary Squires had stated that Zuma had been in a corrupt relationship with Shabir Shaik in 2005, for example, the ANC Youth League vilified him as an "apartheid judge").

Thus although Zuma publicly reasserted the ANC's respect for the independence of the courts after the Nicholson judgment, his failure to confront the more worrying statements of his cohorts prior to that undermined confidence in both his leadership and his own respect for the law.

On his own account, Thabo Mbeki has followed his resignation as president by appealing Nicholson's judgment to the constitutional court as unfair, and as a stain on his historical legacy. If he were to win, the consequences could be devastating for the ANC's moral authority, for it would be accused of having removed a sitting president upon flawed grounds. Whatever the outcome, there is good reason to believe that the integrity of South Africa's legal and judicial institutions have been placed in unnecessary jeopardy by the power-struggles within the ANC. Only time will tell whether this has weakened them irreparably or, by accident more than design, rendered them more robust.

Party and parliament

The third argument is accepted even by some of Thabo Mbeki's strong critics. This is that the ANC's national executive committee - in taking the decision to recall him - has undermined parliament, on the grounds that the latter is entrusted by the constitution with authority to terminate the tenure of office of a sitting president before the expiry of his or her second term (either through passage of a vote of no confidence or by a process of impeachment). Indeed, from this perspective, Mbeki himself must bear a considerable measure of responsibility; for by acceding to the NEC's instruction as a "loyal and disciplined" member of the ANC, rather than forcing the decision into parliament, he has eroded the presidency as a national institution and reduced it to an extension of the ruling party.

This reasoning is further linked to the notion that, because the ANC is a dominant party which is guaranteed to win the next election, a relative handful of party delegates at Polokwane effectively usurped the rights of the electorate by taking upon themselves the responsibility of selecting who would be the nation's next president (notwithstanding that events have seen Mbeki replaced, for the moment, with Motlanthe). The implication can be drawn that the constitution should be changed to allow for the electorate to vote for presidential candidates directly (with the possibility that United States-style primaries could be employed for selection of party presidential choices). 

The counter-argument here is that the ANC has strengthened democracy by replacing a president who has abused power for personal and political ends, and has stridently asserted that the nation's leadership must be accountable. In defeating Mbeki's bid for a third term as party president, and even more so by removing him as a sitting president, the ANC has gone beyond the constitution's commitment to (two) presidential term limits by rendering a sitting incumbent dependent upon the support of his party in parliament. Westminster has triumphed over Washington!

Both streams of argument are somewhat far-fetched. The suggestion that the ANC has usurped parliament and eroded the autonomy of the presidency simply ignores the reality of political dynamics in numerous democracies around the world. Political parties have a right to select their own leaders according to their own procedures, and wider electorates have a right to endorse or reject their choice. It may be the case that the Zuma camp - courtesy of Cosatu, the SACP and ANC Youth League activists - captured control of the ANC's machinery in the lead up to Polokwane; but there was nothing in principle undemocratic about this (indeed, it might rather be said that this was democracy in action).

In any case, the introduction of direct elections for president would be no guarantee of greater democracy, for so long as the ANC remains electorally dominant its candidate for president will be a certain victor. Worse, direct presidential polls - by delinking the president from parliament, as has happened in much of Africa - might unduly strengthen the executive at the expense of the legislature.

 The ANC and the constitution

In retrospect, it would seem that the accusations that the ANC's power-struggle has undermined the constitution are as overblown as the claims by the Jacob Zuma camp that their removal of Thabo Mbeki is an unalloyed triumph for democracy.

To be sure, both assertions have some basis in fact. The ANC's predisposition towards "liberation movement" practices - such as using the deployment of party loyalists into most high positions of state - has had the effect of eroding the neutrality of state institutions, not least by the importation of factional divisions within the ANC into such bodies as the intelligence agencies.

Moreover, there is a widespread sense that the contest within the ANC has in many ways held South Africa hostage, and through its cruder manifestations - such as the Zuma camp's various verbal assaults upon the judiciary and Mbeki's manipulations of the NPA - placed the constitutional status of the legal order at risk. If two other factors are included - the tendency of the ANC to conflate external criticism with racism and illegitimacy, and the very real prospect that Zuma will now rise to the presidency without his having to confront in court the numerous allegations against him of fraud and corruption - there are indeed multiple grounds for concern.

Yet on the bright side, historians may yet judge that the ANC leadership struggle, however tawdry, has actually served to entrench constitutionalism and democracy - notably, albeit unintentionally, by throwing the fate of a sitting president into the courts. Furthermore, if Mbeki's bid for a third term as party leader was an attempt to hang on to power by the back door, then it has been roundly defeated.

Perhaps what is most important of all, however, is that the gloomiest predictions about the consequences of one-party dominance for South Africa's state and democracy have been routed. The ANC's pretensions may be as much authoritarian as they are democratic, but (fortunately) its actions have been found to be thoroughly inconsistent and often, contradictory. Amid the dissension and the discussion within and outside the ANC, there is a strong case for arguing South African politics are now more open, and potentially democratic, than they have been at any time since 1994.


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