Joel Netshitenzhe ("Rush to remove Mbeki smacks of opportunism", Cape Times, June 9 2008) singles out the SACP as part of a band of craven vultures circling over "a political-death-in-the-making". We are accused of "irrationality" and of "trashing a legacy". [See here - Ed] All of this because we have suggested President Mbeki should be recalled.
The SACP has not made this proposal lightly. We are aware of several potential pitfalls. "While there is not yet support from our allies in this regard", the recent SACP central committee statement asserts, "the SACP continues to believe that the President of the country should be recalled. Quite how this should be done without creating more instability is a matter to be considered soberly - perhaps the calling of an early election could be considered."
That is the collective view of the SACP leadership. Netshitenzhe greatly underrates the resonance of our call within COSATU (which has said that it does not YET support the SACP position) and indeed within the ANC's senior leadership. However, it is true that without our allies' wholehearted support, the implementation of a recall is unlikely. In any case, as Netshitenzhe correctly notes, President Mbeki's term is now fast approaching an end.
So does that mean that the SACP's position is purely academic? Not so. In the first place it establishes a bench-mark, not just for the present, but for any future incumbents. The right of recall must be a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy.
Note we have suggested a recall, not an impeachment as Netshitenzhe continually implies. But let's be honest with ourselves, if we were living in a more mature democracy, the events surrounding the Selebi-Pikoli affair would have long been the subject of an impeachment inquiry. The SACP has not called for impeachment proceedings, and we do not want to pre-judge the findings of a hand-picked Ginwala commission. Still less do we want to speculate on where the German and the now fast-tracked UK inquiries into the arms deal might lead. Suffice to say we cannot be complacent about these matters, either as a movement or country.
Among the dangers in making our recall proposal is that it will be used to divert attention from the substantial issues at hand. It is a danger that Netshitenzhe seeks to exploit to the hilt. He wants to assure us that everything is on track. Government is busy consolidating its Medium Term Strategic Framework and the ANC will hold a lekgotla in July. We can all chug along guided by the State of Nation address apex priorities. In short, although the slogan is "business unusual", there is a profound sense of complacency. "With all of these ducks neatly in a row", Netshitenzhe asks, "why then the clamour for political instability?"
Clearly in Netshitenzhe's estimation political instability is what the SACP is intent on stirring up artificially in an otherwise serene environment. Things are fine in Khutsong. All is well in the SABC, the judiciary, and the SAPS. The hundreds of township revolts have not really taken place. Yes, there might be a problem or two, but, as President Mbeki assured Parliament in January in regard to Zimbabwe, all that remains are a few "procedural matters".
I respect Netshitenzhe's loyalty to his political principal. Without agreeing, I also respect an argument that a presidential recall might add to (rather than help resolve) the current political drift. What is deeply disappointing, however, is the blend of complacency and denialism - hallmarks of the Mbeki presidency - that Netshitenzhe brings to his argument. Even more disturbing are his inclinations, once the complacency is threatened and the denialism wears thin, to rubbish and demonise alternative views.
Why is there a proposal for a recall, is the basic question Netshitenzhe reiterates throughout his intervention. Flashing a polemical sword, he then wades into straw-persons in all directions. "There are some who seem to have expected Mbeki to line up behind the MDC and its international backers in pronouncing Morgan Tsvangirai the outright winner in the March presidential election." Well, there might have been some who had this expectation, but certainly not the SACP. However, that is not the issue. The issue is that, by this sleight of hand, Netshitenzhe seeks to divert us away from any substantial evaluation of President Mbeki's past and continuing Zimbabwe policies.
Netshitenzhe continues: "There will be ongoing debate about" (spin-doctor's code for "okay, there might be a tiny problem here") "the president's public relations activities. But this can hardly be an argument for impeachment." Well said, comrade Joel! Yet another straw-person be-headed! But, on second thoughts, who on earth has actually argued that the president should be impeached for his PR limitations?
Could the recall proposal be based on Mbeki's belated response to the attacks on foreign immigrants, Netshitenzhe rhetorically wonders. He then answers his own question: "Objective observers know that the president cannot wave a magic wand to prevent economic migrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and elsewhere." Again a straw-person. Again a sleight of hand that avoids asking fundamental questions like: Has Mbeki presided over an effective migration policy?
"Or is it about the electricity emergency?", Netshitenzhe wonders. "But how", he responds, "will an immediate change of president resolve this complex problem?"
Of course President Mbeki is not single-handedly to blame for the electricity crisis, or HIV denialism in our country, or the implosion in Zimbabwe, or the arms procurement fiasco. And therefore, of course, a recall will itself not be the silver bullet that miraculously resolves any of these deep-seated challenges.
However, if Mbeki is not single-handedly responsible, he certainly presided over these and other crises. For instance, it was Mbeki's cabinet that in its 1998 energy white paper came up with the preposterous claim that "the most significant international shift in consciousness is a realisation that commercial energy sources will not become scarce in the short or even medium term. The ‘limits to growth' school of thought has receded." (Who advised them on this? Enron?) From this the Mbeki government concluded that national energy sovereignty was irrelevant and Eskom could be sold off. When COSATU and the SACP protested, we were accused of trying to overthrow the state (by those who were trying to sell it off).
For the SACP, the recall of President Mbeki is not an obsession. It is a suggestion. We do have obsessions, like the rocketing food and energy prices. Our concern in this regard is about a truly obsessive Reserve Bank that persists in firing blanks at the price of a barrel of Brent Crude, and a government that imagines externally-driven inflation can be curbed with self-defeating macro-economic measures instead of micro-economic interventions that aim to ensure as much food and energy sovereignty as possible.
Unless there is an honest reflection on what President Mbeki continues to preside over, the challenges we face on so many fronts will persist and deepen - regardless of who happens to be the incumbent.