PRESIDENT Thabo Mbeki was not in a happy place. He had suffered a humiliating defeat at the ANC's national conference at Polokwane in December 2007 when he lost the presidency of the ruling party to Jacob Zuma, who had now cleared a path to the Union Buildings. As the balance of power shifted unceremoniously away from him, the beleaguered Mbeki began to confide in one the few politicians he apparently could trust - Helen Zille.
"I was amazed how he levelled with me," she later told the journalist Ray Hartley. "He used to speak so openly to me that I used to sometimes sit there and think, ‘Do you know I'm leader of the opposition?'"
One such meeting - recounted in one of the more dramatic passages in Hartley's succinct yet richly-detailed history of the democratic era, Ragged Glory: The Rainbow Nation in Black and White - took place shortly after then national police commissioner Jackie Selebi had been charged for corruption in January 2008.
An "ashen-faced" Mbeki had revealed that the National Prosecuting Authority was about to reach a plea bargain agreement with the killers of mining magnate Brett Kebble in order to stitch up Selebi.
"Have you ever heard of a country anywhere in the world," Mbeki asked Zille, "where police will do a deal to get murderers off the hook in order to nail somebody that they allege is corrupt? They've got to get rid of my allies one by one and that's why they are prepared to to do a pact with the devil to nail Jackie Selebi."
Zille was stunned. "I'm sitting there as leader of the opposition," she recalled, "and my eyes are on stalks. I left [the Union Buildings] thinking, ‘He obviously trusts me, otherwise he wouldn't have said that, but did he say that because he wants me to use that? I didn't say anything because I felt he was taking me into his confidence."
She was, moreover, now well aware of the dangers of the bruising power struggle between Mbeki and Zuma. "It showed me then what the war between [Mbeki] and his opponents was like and that it was a war over controlling the institutions of state. It was a war over controlling the police. It was a war over controlling the prosecuting authority. Because all of these institutions of state were seen as proxies in the political war."
As far as Zille was concerned, the ANC had now undermined the state's ability to act in the interests of the electorate. "The conclusion I drew from that is that we are heading towards a failed state," she said, pointing to Zimbabwe, where "there were no checks and balances on power so [President Robert] Mugabe turned all the institutions of state into an extension of himself. And now when people wake up and say they want to vote against him, all those institutions are wheeled out to crush the people's will. That's a failed state in my book."
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"I DON'T think South Africa is a failed state," Hartley tells me. "I don't think we're close to a failed state. I mean, if you want to see a failed state, you need to go to Zimbabwe. And even Zimbabwe is better than Somalia. But that doesn't mean that there are things that aren't failing. And they're very important things. And failed states start out as successful states that get complacent and ignore the warning signs. There are very big failings that are emerging. But we have a system in place which I think will correct that."
This "system" includes the by-now familiar "checks and balances" trope of the South African post-1994 narrative; the country has a rich and vibrant civil society, a noisy media and - despite the clamour from the Zuma faction to revisit and overhaul the Constitution - a professional and independent judiciary.
As the Constitutional Court's Justice Edwin Cameron told Hartley, "After nineteen years, we have much about which we should feel disquiet and dismay. But we also have much about which we can feel at least a small measure of tentative pride . . . We have become acquainted with the constraints and the evils of power, including the insidious looting of public assets for private gain. But after nineteen years, we have a battered partly time-tested, mostly viable and certainly functioning constitutional democracy."
But Hartley points to another force that will, he believes, play a significant role. "You know," he says, "you've got rising political competition - just look at Parliament - and the ruling party is going to have to at some point start delivering services and clear out corruption or else it's going to suffer the political consequences at the polls. And there are big and important places like Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg and Gauteng where the political competition is hotting up. So that's how our system is supposed to work - and I think it is working. It's just that right now, they haven't managed to turn the ship around."
That ship, as Hartley's sober book reveals, is perhaps in need of more than just turning around; it's taking on water rather alarmingly and some extreme jettisoning of baggage may be in order. And, if we may run with the metaphor, Hartley has been on board to observe, at first hand, much of what has gone amiss since the start of the voyage. He was a political correspondent with The Sunday Times, and travelled extensively with Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki during their presidencies. Later, he was founding editor of The Times before an all-too brief stint as editor of The Sunday Times. He is currently editor at large with the Times Media Group and continues to write about South Africa.
Hartley possibly has the driest wit in our fourth estate. When I point to the late Washington Post publisher Phil Graham's observation that "Journalism is the first rough draft of history" and suggest that he has done an admirable job in polishing that draft with Ragged Glory, he is quick to respond, deadpan, "It's the final draft." It's difficult to argue with that - just as it's difficult to escape the conclusion that the central tragic figure of his assessment is Thabo Mbeki.
"I think that Mandela presided over an open society," Hartley says. "Everybody was in the big South African tent. Reconciliation meant that even his jailers were now his bodyguards. And Mbeki turned away from that and instead of focusing on the things that unite us, he focused on the things that divide us. That decision to move in that direction, I think, fractured South Africa."
Mbeki, he adds, also concentrated power - both the party's and the state's - in his own hands. The circle of advisers and associates who were able to influence him in his decision-making grew ever smaller. "And that gave Zuma, when he took power, a very powerful machine with which to put in place a regime of patronage. Mbeki has got to take some serious responsibility for that."
There were two Mbekis, Hartley says. The first, as Mandela's deputy president, was very much a "backroom guy" who did much "behind-the-scenes" as an administrator with the Mandela presidency. The second, more familiar Mbeki emerged when the policies of his presidency came under critical fire.
"Then his true nature started to emerge - he was much more paranoid and controlling. And as this personality came out, it was quite surprising to us. Mandela understood symbolism. And he understood that we're in an era of communication, of mass communication, which you've got to actually set the standard by what you do. You know, putting on the green jersey, and going out there [for the 1995 Rugby World Cup]. That was a massively powerful thing to do. But that was not Mbeki's thing."
One part of that "thing" that certainly ran counter to Mandela's presidential style was Mbeki's sarcasm. He was a man who apparently delighted in alienating potential allies. "He had his weekly on-line newsletter," Hartley recalls, "so he had 52 chances a year to make a mortal enemy of someone and he used every single one of them - a journalist this week, a politician the next week, a businessman the week after, a party member the week after that, the trade unions after that. His idea was to set himself apart from everybody else."
And, of course, it worked. Much to his detriment. Hartley believes that by the time Mbeki realised that "he had played the wrong game" it was too late "to make friends". It was telling, he adds, that Zille was one of the few politicians he could trust - he had alienated himself that much from his own party.
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THE great blight on the democratic era remains the continuing rise of a predatory political elite. "I think the antecedents of the corruption problem are far in the past," Hartley says. "There were opportunities where Mandela could have made a bold statement about corruption around Sarafina II, for example."
At the time, 1995, the then health minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, had wanted to stage the Mbongeni Ngema musical around the country to improve awareness of HIV/Aids. Three parties were invited to tender - but only two did. One, Opera Africa, stated it could stage and tour the production for R600 000. Ngema's Committed Artists company, meanwhile, put in its R14.25m bid and got the job. The project's "maladministration", as Hartley calls it, set the scene for the democratic parliament's first serious showdown with the executive.
"It was highly irregular, and right there Mandela could have said, ‘We don't do business this way.' Parliament was holding [Dlamini-Zuma] to account and she was saved from that parliamentary process and some minor official in that department got fired and she went on to greater heights. And there was never any public sanction of what she'd done. That was a moment where a direction could have been chosen - and a wrong direction was chosen."
The next wrong direction came when then ANC Western Cape chair Allan Boesak was charged with misappropriating more than $500 000 from various aid organisations. Returning to Cape Town from the United States to face the music, he was greeted by a reception committee at the airport of more than a thousand cheering ANC supporters led by the then justice minister, Dullah Omar, who made it clear he was there with Mandela's blessing. As he put it, "Comrade President said to me: ‘Dullah, you're going to the airport.'"
"The justice minister? Gets sent to the airport? Boesak gets carried on the shoulders of the people after a speech about his heroic exploits in the struggle? Totally the wrong move. The message was, ‘You'll be protected. If you're one of us, you will be protected when they come after you.'
"Those two examples could have gone the other way. The message would have been sent that we do not tolerate this, and just to be clear to anybody else out there who wants to mess with tender procedures, is they're gonna get it."
Hartley adds that Mandela, "a walking saint", had been in an ideal position to drive home that message. "He had a five-year term as president. He made that clear from the outset. He wasn't seeking re-election. He was in a very powerful position, politically. I don't think anyone in the ANC would have challenged him - unless he had charted a radically different agenda."
That culture of protectionism led in turn to the overarching and continuing scandal of the era. "The arms deal," Hartley says, "was only possible because a lot of very senior people believed that they were immune, that they were protected. I don't think that you would have had that scale of corruption otherwise."
Again, it was Mbeki's vision that led to the scandal. He saw South Africa as a sovereign power that was able to play a broader peace-keeping role in Africa - without a dependency on European or American forces.
"But the outcome was to buy fighter planes and battleships that would play no role whatsoever in any African peacekeeping operation. And never have. And the things that we do need for African peacekeeping, we haven't bought. Like transport planes and those [troop carrier] things. So the motive doesn't square with the outcome. And it suggests that there may have been a rational decision to go and procure these arms but that, by the time that procurement was finished and the arms manufacturers and their local friends had tied up the deal, something completely different emerged. And much more expensive."
And now the government was considering yet another arms deal.
"Yes, I think now we have to look at doing the stuff that we didn't do then. Because now we find ourselves in the Central African Republic having to call on the French to extract us because we don't have the equipment. So now we're back to square one with another arms deal that this time is going to be above board - although one is skeptical . . . there's not a lot of confidence that they're going to do it."
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DESPITE the extensive controversies, scandals and setbacks it catalogues in its pages, Ragged Glory is cautiously upbeat about the future. Hartley bases his optimism on very recent events - and he suggests that, for all his legal battles, Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters are poised to play a significant role in the country's affairs.
"Twenty years is not a long time, actually," he says. "We have had five successful democratic elections. We do still have very powerful institutions, like the judiciary, and we do have some weak institutions, like the prosecuting authority and the police. But, with rising political competition, and the constitution that we have, the outcome has got to be good for South Africa, ultimately. I don't think that its possible to continue to not create jobs and not absorb the vast amount of youth into the labour market without paying the price.
"So, Malema is much more of a threat [to the ANC]. You know, he's seen as a bit of a comic, and an amusement. But he's much more of a threat. I don't think he's been understood. People say, ‘How many votes will Malema take from the DA?' None. ‘How many will he take from the ANC?' Very few. ‘So where does he get the votes from, how is he gonna grow?'
"Well, the fact is that there's a vast and growing number of people outside the formal political process. Roughly the same number of people voted in the 2014 election as did in 1994. But the population's grown massively. So there's a growing number of people outside the process. There are 34 million South Africans above the age of 18. Of those 25 million have registered to vote, and 18 million voted. So, there's a huge constituency that can be mobilised by someone who starts talking their language. Those people are marginalised. They don't see or hear a voice representing them in Parliament."
There are, I suggest, commentators like Steven Friedman who claim that Malema and the EFF's support base is not working class, who remain doggedly loyal to the ANC, but rather middle class. That, Hartley says, depends on the definition of "middle class" - and he points to the Living Standards Measures as used by the SA Audience Research Foundation, which divides the population into groups, with LSM One the lowest and LSM Ten the highest.
"If you define it as people who've moved from LSM Four to LSM Six, Seven and Eight, then, yes. And there's been huge movement over the last 20 years, out of LSM Four into the middle classes. And it's very precarious. It's very highly geared. There's a lot of borrowing. It's not old money. It's borrowed money. And that middle class is brittle.
"The reason that Soweto booed Jacob Zuma [at Mandela's FNB memorial celebrations] is e-tolls. The e-tolls are very real for Soweto. You've got people who've now got into the middle class, they've got their first car, and now they've got to pay e-tolls, and they're heavily geared and heavily indebted. It's real money. It's a real problem for them. And there's a constituency that may be mobilised by Malema.
"So I think his real growth potential lies with people outside the political system at the moment. Who're not voting. Or who're not registered. If he can get them into politics, he'll have lots of growth. Potentially."
And what of the ANC? What of their future?
"I don't know," Hartley says. "I think it's very hard for a party that has got into such a rut to get itself out of that rut, to renew itself, to present itself as something different without a change of power. Being out of power really does sharpen your sense of needing to do something to reform in order to win back power.
"But having said that, the ANC have taken [former finance minister] Pravin Gordhan, a very senior person, and have put him into local government for a reason. They need to shore up the local government structures and start delivering or else they're going to pay the price in the 2016 [local government] elections. So, there are signs that they are aware of their position.
"Gordhan's problem though is that he's up against a vast network of patronage. Cadres are running local government and there are little fiefdoms all over the country. Some of them with political connections to the top. It's going to be very hard for him to sort through that without their being a rebellion in the party."
Adding to those difficulties, of course, is the marginalisation of "reasonable voices" within the ANC. "That's the thing," Hartley says. "[Former Reserve Bank governor] Tito Mboweni was keen to get back into government and he was ignored. He's a talented person. But his skills were not required. [Former finance minister and minister in the Presidency for the National Planning Commission] Trevor Manuel's out. That's concerning. He retired, but I think he was sidelined, myself. The National Development Plan was his baby, he spent a lot of time on it, the party announced that it was adopting it, and then immediately began to tear it to pieces. It's just disillusioning."
This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.
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