Jacob Zuma, Terror Lekota, and the constitution

What the two former ANC chairman had to say about liberal democracy back in 1996

In late 2006 the Afrikaans press gave significant coverage to the comments made by then ANC Deputy President Jacob Zuma to a gathering in Lusikisiki, in the Eastern Cape, where Zuma reminded supporters that he had once stated that the ANC was more important than the Constitution. Zuma said he had once been called in to negotiate a dispute within the ANC, and told the crowd "I said then that the ANC is more important than even the Constitution of the country".

In a subsequent editorial response, Die Burger argued that, by saying the ANC was more important than South Africa's Constitution, Zuma was reaffirming his allegiance to a group of populists within the alliance who were willing to set aside the Constitution and its principles if it suited their definition of transformation or any other one of their narrow political objectives.

But which past dispute was Zuma referring to? And why exactly did he originally say the ANC trumped the Constitution? A look into the archives reveals the answer.

The incident Zuma was referring to happened over ten years ago, on 17 November 1996, and the dispute concerned the ANC's decision to remove Mosiuoa "Terror" Lekota from his position as Free State premier. At the time Jacob Zuma was the ANC's national chairperson and was speaking to delegates at an ANC regional meeting in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal.

Several times that year, Lekota had exercised his Constitutional prerogative to hire and fire MECs unilaterally which in turn had led to friction with ANC Free State Chairperson Pat Matosa - according to Business Day, Lekota's "arch-enemy" in the province. Lekota had done so without consulting the ANC, a cardinal sin in the ruling party.

Lekota's removal had a substantial fallout. ANC branch structures protested and Zuma was called in to resolve the dispute. As national chairperson his primary goal was to re-enforce the ANC's policy of cadre redeployment and, with it, the principle that party members are accountable first and foremost to the ANC.

And so it was that Zuma told delegates in Durban, "Once you begin to feel you are above the ANC, you are in trouble".

The Eastern Province Herald reported on the meeting as follows: "DURBAN - ANC leaders in government should not regard South Africa's Constitution as being "more important" than the ANC because this would land them in trouble, ANC national chairman Jacob Zuma said here yesterday".

The Natal Witness quoted Zuma as saying, "No political force can destroy the ANC - it is only the ANC that can destroy itself". According to the paper, Zuma said the Constitution was there only "to regulate matters". Ironically the Eastern Province Herald goes on to report that Zuma later told delegates that, "ANC members should note what happened in the Free State", saying it was "vital to rid the party of inter-organisational conflict".

So, coming back to more recent events, there can be little doubt that, if anything, Jacob Zuma is consistent. Beeld reported Zuma as telling the meeting in the Eastern Cape, "How can a person live, if not for the ANC?" And, the website Ever-fasternews points out that Zuma provoked a similar controversy during the 2004 election campaign when he told an ANC audience, "The ANC will rule South Africa until Jesus comes back".

While this incident in 1996 is largely remembered for Zuma's comment - which at the time made headlines of its own - Lekota's side of the story is not as well documented. Nevertheless, his views are worth investigating for, unlike Zuma, Lekota defended, at the time, the South African Constitution as the primary and fundamental guide for all public representatives and condemned Zuma's remarks.

Lekota's views are set out very nicely in this December 1996 interview with the Irish academic, Padraig O'Malley. From the interview it is quite clear that Zuma's comments were not just a public message to members of the ANC - a warning that discipline would be taken against any member who acted out line with the decisions taken by the ANC's National Executive Committee, even if they were following the Constitution, but also a reflection of how the ruling party handled the dispute behind the scenes.

In the interview, Lekota warns against a party culture in which the ANC is seen as more important than the Constitution and defends his actions as entirely justifiable and in terms of his Constitutional mandate. The interview needs to be read its entirety, as it's a complex issue, but importantly this is what Lekota had to say about Zuma's comments:

Padraig O'Malley: "Well they (ANC members) are more or less like puppets of the ANC, accountable to the national leadership of the ANC. If you toe the line you're OK, if you don't appear to toe the line out you go."

Lekota: "Indeed yes. And once you do that I think you reduce to nil whatever gains of democracy we have cherished and continue to hope will become the order of the day in this country. Really, these two issues for me they are critical questions. Jacob Zuma made a statement two weeks ago I think in Durban in which he said that the ANC is above the constitution of the country. I think it's an absolute disaster."

O'Malley: "No-one challenged that by the way."

Lekota: "It's not been challenged, which in itself is sad and very unfortunate. I think in the coming period we are going to have to answer to that because if that statement is going to be the guiding light for the ANC then I think we are completely on the wrong route, completely. I cannot see that South Africa can be different from so many of the African countries which have got excellent documents on paper but when it comes to practice it's completely something different. I think if in the end that is really what we have fought for or what we are expected to have fought for and so on, then freedom will never really dawn on our side. I think we need to be dealing with that issue as early as possible. I think all of us need to take very seriously the implications of this and we must do so with foresight, understanding full well that once one brick on the foundation of any building was skewed one way or the other the rest of the building will never become straight. It will continue to be even more skewed the higher the building goes."

Interestingly O'Malley also conducted an interview with Zuma, on 12 November 1996, just prior to Zuma's comments about the ANC and the Constitution. In that interview, O'Malley asks Zuma about the unfolding drama in the Free State. Zuma's response sets the scene for what was to follow. Among other things, Zuma states, "no one person can be above the ANC". Seen in this light, his comments about the Constitution were almost inevitable. (Zuma's thoughts are very poorly conveyed, but nevertheless, his underlying point is crystal clear: there is the ANC, and then there is everything - and everyone - else.)

O'Malley: "And finally Patrick Lekota whom I have known for years and admired for years, and maybe I don't understand the structures or the way things work. My understanding was that a provincial legislature, that the legislature chose the Premier and the Premier chose his Cabinet and yet here you have a situation of where the National Executive of a political party steps in and in effect tells the Premier and everybody in his Cabinet to resign or suggests it, and they in fact replace them so the provincial Cabinet and the Premier is subject to the authority of the National Executive of the party. Is that the way - you know what I'm saying?"

Jacob Zuma: "I understand you very well. I don't know why you should be surprised. There is no Premier who is a Premier out of nowhere. They are all coming from the political party. They are answerable and accountable to the party, including the President and everybody else. The President of this country is the President of the ANC. No one person can be above the ANC. He can't be. [The] ANC provided in the proportional representation [system] at the moment, provided leaders who stood not for themselves but for the ANC [sic]. One election on the votes of the ANC. You then have the constitutional process wherein once a Premier is elected by the ANC majority in the legislature, not just the legislature in general terms, by the ANC majority, without the ANC majority it would not have an ANC Premier, once then he is elected we have given him a confidence that he can form an executive. He does so. He has no right to do whatever he wants. It has to be because even the government policy of the national or Free State is ANC policy, so you can't do anything. Then you have a problem where the Premier fights with other leaders, there is in-fighting for 2½ years. He is not capable as a leader to solve the problem and lead, he is part of the problem, he leads a faction against another faction. You can't say he is a provincial leader, he is a faction leader within the ANC. The ANC intervenes to try to talk to them to make them talk. For 2½ years they can't just solve the problem. Now no ANC is going to leave that situation to continue because finally that kind of in-fighting undermines the ANC at the end, not an individual. It therefore undermines the government of the ANC. They stand in public, swear at each other, do all sorts of things. Now no ANC could stand for that. Then the National Executive Committee of the ANC that put all of them on the list for them to go there has to intervene. And the ANC intervenes by them making the Provincial Executive to resign and the executive government to resign so that you remove the fighting leaders because they are not leading, they are fighting, so that you introduce stability, so that you have got that province functioning properly. We are correctly within our rights. If we left that, that ANC would have been destroyed in that province. We would have no ANC, just factions. Now no ANC could stand for that. That's why we moved in and we are very much within our rights, very correct".

[This is an edited version of a series of articles which first appeared on the insidepolitics weblog in late 2006 and early 2007]

Click here to sign up to receive the Politicsweb headlines in your email inbox in the morning