The fall of Thabo Mbeki

One of SA’s top political journalists gives his take on the causes and consequences of Polokwane

The African National Congress, which was founded in Bloemfontein on January 8 1912, is the oldest liberation movement in Africa and has governed South Africa since the advent of democracy in 1994. It garnered 69% of the vote during the 2004 general election and has since increased its parliamentary majority to 299 seats out of 400 through floor-crossing. It also rules all nine provinces, though it has never achieved overall majorities in two: KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. The ANC rules these two provinces outright only because of floor-crossing.

The ANC has always been a battleground between elite interests and the needs of the masses, a tension yet again at play during the party's national conference of December 16-20 in Polokwane. A brief overview of ANC history might help indicate the significance and scope of the defeat President Thabo Mbeki suffered three weeks ago.

The events are obviously too recent to present any sort of definitive analysis at this stage, and I will not attempt it. Some observations from my ringside seat might, however, prove helpful, especially if we consider the way Mbeki centralised power and lost touch with the critical mass of ANC supporters, and the importance of a peaceful, democratic transfer of power in a state where one political party is as dominant as the ANC is in South Africa.

When the ANC was founded in 1912 (as the SANNC; it took the name ANC in 1923), it was an organisation of the African elite, advocating a qualified franchise for the educated, the propertied classes and the hereditary chiefs. After World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, the organisation was faced with the massive popularity of South Africa's first black trade union, the ICU, and briefly shifted to the left, under Communist influence. It was the beginning of an ambivalent relationship with the trade unionist movement and the Communists which endures to this day.

By 1930, the ICU's star had waned and the elite lobby under Pixley ka Seme lost no time in ousting the leftist leadership. The conservative grouping, eventually led by Dr. Alfred Xuma, was threatened by the industrialisation, urbanisation and radicalisation brought about by World War II, which spawned new, young leaders like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and especially Anton Lembede. They used the ANC Youth League to topple Xuma in 1949 - the last contested ANC leadership election until 2007.

The 1950's brought closer relations between the ANC and the SA Communist Party (SACP), mainly because the Nationalist government used draconian legislation to brand anyone who disagreed with it outside the discredited oligarchic parliamentary system of the time as a communist.

This does not mean that the majority of ANC members were pro-communist. Rather, they were pro-SACP. When days are dark, friends are few, and at the time the ANC befriended whomsoever could best further its cause. Ties between the ANC and SACP remain, and played a role in Mbeki's defeat.

The ANC became a mass movement during the 1950's, and was banned by Dr Hendrik Verwoerd in April 1960. In exile - although it pointedly remained committed to the liberation of (black) Africans in particular - the movement decided to open membership to all races, placing it at odds with the other main liberation group, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). It refused to take part in the apartheid homeland system, in contrast to the Inkatha movement, which today, as the IFP, is the South African opposition party with the strongest black support. Furthermore, during the ANC's banning between 1960 and 1990, the black working class became unionised, mostly as part of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), which was founded in Durban in 1986.

When the ANC was unbanned in 1990, it formed the so-called tripartite alliance with the SACP and Cosatu, which has survived many trials and tribulations especially since the ANC became the governing party in 1994. It is an unhappy but enduring forum in which the ANC as senior partner is supposed to consult its two junior colleagues, but rarely does. The SACP and Cosatu's alienation was an important factor in Mbeki's defeat.

Mbeki's vulnerability
Although the ANC has grown under Mbeki, he was vulnerable going into Polokwane for a number of reasons. Chief among these were renewed economic disparities, centralisation of power, unpalatable domestic and foreign policy, and personal likeability.

In government, the ANC under Mbeki has thus far followed a market-oriented programme of black economic empowerment, creating a new black middle class and a much resented small black elite. The impressive national economic growth rate is not matched by job creation and has seen a further widening of the already disturbing wealth gap. It has, however, generated much-needed foreign investment and has created international trust no leader can afford to squander. South Africa is not just another Third World basket case. South Africans know this and despite any differences we might have, there is a national will to make the country work.

This said, Mbeki has, despite being an ardent disciple of the Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon, proved incapable of avoiding a trap Fanon repeatedly warned against: the creation of a nationalist, racialised bourgeoisie which enriches itself on account of its race, but contributes little to production and lacks the self-elevating vitality and invention of what Fanon terms the bourgeoisie of the Western metropolis.

Instead, Mbeki has created a pampered black elite through racial discrimination. It is an elite despised by the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA) - the premier parliamentary opposition - for the way it symbolised Mbeki's reracialisation of South African politics, and abhorred by the SACP, Cosatu, and the broad forces of the Left for the cronyism, favoritism, hubris and elitism it encapsulates. Political opposition groupings across the spectrum have called for a more broad-based empowerment programme, and many have asked for it to be deracialised. The opposition to the Mbeki government's racially-based enrichment of the few contributed greatly to the president's downfall.

Centralisation of power reached such a zenith under Mbeki that the loaded term "an imperial presidency", last used in the bad old days of P.W. Botha, made an unwelcome comeback. Mbeki used his power to appoint his supporters as provincial premiers - often against the will of the ANC rank and file. In Polokwane, he paid a heavy price as the provinces of Gauteng, the Free State and Mpumalanga turned against him. He has also kept utterly inept supporters in his cabinet despite their inability to perform. He fired popular Deputy Minister of Health Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge on a technicality after she dared challenge his disastrous HIV/Aids policy. Suspicions linger after Mbeki suspended the country's national director of public prosecutions upon hearing he intended to prosecute the national police commissioner, who admits to being friendly with alleged Mafioso kingpins.

Mbeki's policies on HIV/Aids and Zimbabwe have been wildly unpopular within the ANC, especially within the tripartite alliance. The delay in the rollout of antiretroviral drugs is often termed criminal. It is hard to fault the oft-expressed view that Mbeki's racially-based denialism of a South African tragedy is a dereliction of duty which borders on genocide. The SACP and Cosatu's outspoken criticism of Mbeki's soft approach to the Mugabe regime's unwillingness to relinquish power and its assault on human rights in Zimbabwe was reflected on a prominent poster in Polokwane: "No Mugabe here!"

Personal likeability also played a role in Polokwane. Mbeki has never been a populist or a man of the masses. His convoluted diatribes posing as philosophy tend to bore and confuse, and provide little evidence of any vitality of thought. He is often out of the country, and has admitted to biographer Mark Gevisser that he is never quite at home anywhere in the world. In Polokwane, the rank and file chose someone whom they could understand and to whom they could relate. And they chose someone who could understand and relate to them.

The flawed victor
Jacob Zuma comes from impoverished beginnings in rural Zululand. After a rudimentary formal education which left him functionally illiterate, he went to the city of Durban where he became involved in the liberation struggle. He was arrested and sent to Robben Island, where he completed his secondary schooling. He has, however, never been to university. Upon his release he rose to become head of the ANC's underground intelligence network. Concerns about his lack of formal education have been raised by his critics, although his supporters point to his undoubted personal intelligence to sell him as someone who pulled himself up by the bootstraps and who gave his all for South African liberation: a symbol of a people unbowed by a prejudicial system.

More than his lack of formal education, his critics point to two issues his supporters struggle to explain away: his attitudes to women and other previously marginalised members of South African society (despite the liberal provisions of the South African constitution) and, especially, his alleged involvement in corruption.

Zuma faced the embarrassment of a rape trial last year. Although he was found not guilty, the unsavoury details to which he admitted damaged his standing and showed an alarming ignorance of the transmission of HIV/Aids. As a Zulu traditionalist he practices polygamy. Over the years he has fathered some 23 children by 9 women. Zuma himself admits not knowing how many children he has. He also once criticised gay people, although he retracted those remarks unconditionally. He is worryingly ambivalent about the death penalty, which was outlawed by the South African Constitutional Court, but at least seems to be pro-choice on abortion as South African law dictates.

The greatest criticism of Zuma is his allegedly corrupt relationship with Durban businessman Schabir Shaik. Shaik was found guilty of corruption in a case which implicated Zuma and is currently in jail. Zuma maintains payments made to him by Shaik were merely a friend helping someone in need or, alternatively, loans to be repaid at an unspecified future date in the absence of a written agreement.

The criminal case against Zuma was struck off the roll for technical reasons and will resume in the Natal High Court in Pietermaritzburg later this year, probably in August. Having attended both the Shaik and Zuma cases I believe a guilty verdict is a very strong possibility under South Africa's strict anti-corruption laws, which criminalise both corruptor and corruptee.

How the ANC and the tripartite alliance will deal with this court case will be the litmus test for Zuma's leadership and will be discussed below.

Which begs an important question: Why was such a flawed candidate selected to oppose Mbeki? The answer, I believe, is in short that he was the last willing person standing.

The battle before Polokwane
Mbeki's leadership style became ever more paranoid after he assumed power. In 2001, the country was treated to the unexpected and bizarre spectacle of the erstwhile Minister of Safety and Security, Steve Tshwete, claiming on national television the existence of a "plot" against Mbeki. The alleged plotters were three former politicians Mbeki (a master of political subterfuge, intrigue and infighting) had had ousted from their influential positions: Mathews Phosa, Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale. All three denied the rather unspecified allegations (which were never substantiated), but their reputations were tarnished.. Phosa and Sexwale would later play a pivotal role in unseating Mbeki in Polokwane. At about the same time the plot allegations were aired Zuma was forced to issue a statement that he was not planning to stand against Mbeki at the next national conference of the ANC in 2002.

Since then, Mbeki used his poisonous pen to vilify all who dared to differ from him - be it the opposition DA or anyone in the ANC or the tripartite alliance who did not toe party line. His attacks on the Left ensured a festering unhappiness which bore its bitter fruit in Polokwane.

Mbeki's presidency is term-limited by the South African constitution but there is no term limit on the leadership of the ANC. After Zuma was implicated in the Shaik verdict, Mbeki fired him and installed a well-known personal acolyte, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, in his place. At the same time, Mbeki cast himself as an avowed feminist. A belief took root that Mbeki might, upon re-election, use his position as party leader to remain the power behind the throne, like term-limited Pres. Sam Nujoma had done in Namibia.

Zuma, however, decided to fight on, amassing support from what the Sunday Times has termed the "coalition of the wounded" - a loose grouping of diverse people Mbeki ostracised during his tenure. galvanised, as his primary support base, the Zulu nationalism always latent in KwaZulu-Natal, urban Gauteng, and the highveld of Mpumalanga. He also gathered together the much-maligned forces of the Left; various frustrated provincial politicians whose careers were stalled by Mbeki and his puppet premiers; and individuals such as Phosa, Sexwale, and Billy Masethla, the national spy chief whom Mbeki had ousted under suspicious circumstances.

Mbeki and his supporters made light of the Zuma threat despite two important early indicators of strong Zuma support: at the ANC National General Council in Pretoria in 2005 when Zuma was confirmed as deputy leader of the party barely two weeks after Mbeki fired him as deputy president, and at the ANC Policy Conference in Midrand in June last year when a motion was carried that "the leader of the ANC should preferably also be the leader of the country".

Very few people were prepared for the apocalyptic way Mbeki would lose power, but three weeks before the ANC National Conference took place, the country was rocked by the results of the branch nominations for party leader, a process roughly equivalent to the current American primary season.

Zuma won five provinces (KwaZulu-Natal, Northern Cape, Free State, Mpumalanga and Gauteng) to Mbeki's four (Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Limpopo and North West). Zuma's victories in Gauteng and the Northern Cape were unexpected, but the truly astounding aspect was the margin of his provincial victories: 98% in KwaZulu-Natal, above 90% in Mpumalanga, more than 80% in the Free State and over two thirds in Gauteng. Countrywide, Zuma led by a lopsided 61% to 39%.

It was a political earthquake which shook the Mbeki supporters awake. They crisscrossed the country trying to stem the tide. They played the feminist card. They played the race card. They played the "Zuma is stupid" card. They played the "Zuma is corrupt" card. They used the national broadcaster. Mbeki suddenly gave interviews on radio, television and to newspapers. His spin doctors talked of victory as Polokwane approached.

Events in Polokwane
The Zuma supporters were always going to be more vocal at Polokwane. It was clear though from the word go on the Sunday morning that they were in the majority in the tent at the University of Limpopo campus where the plenary sessions were held. Mbeki supporters kept trying to tell the media and everyone else that the winner should not be called prematurely. Mbeki would prevail, they said, once the election came down to each delegate, his/her conscience, the ballot paper, and the elevated loneliness and responsibility of the polling booth.

But the truth was there for all to behold. The fist session was chaired by Mbeki supporter and Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota, who acted as public battering ram against Zuma in the run-up to Polokwane. I have never seen a chair cope so poorly. Points of order were raised continuously by delegates from Zuma-supporting provinces and Lekota clearly had no control over the gathering. Time and again Zuma ally Kgalema Motlanthe had to step in to restore order. It was clear which faction controlled the crowd.

Mbeki exacerbated his predicament by delivering a speech running to fully 62 pages which left the majority of his unfortunate audience bored to distraction. In the last few pages he aimed a few barbs at Zuma, which were not well received.

For the rest of the Sunday and most of Monday, the conference sessions were closed to the media but feedback from inside the massive tent was that the Zuma camp was taking control. Still, rival rallies were held on the campus on Monday afternoon, and the Mbeki camp remained outspokenly confident.

On Monday night the two camps proposed their candidates for the top six positions on the ANC's national working committee, which oversees the day to day running of the party. The Zuma camp had to change its list of nominees after Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (who was nominated by both sides, but for different positions) threw in her lot with Mbeki. The acclamation with which the new Zuma list was accepted was an indication of how the voting would unfold on the Tuesday. Nevertheless, Mbeki spin doctors kept telling us their side was on the verge of grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat. They were either lying or (as I believe) terribly out of touch.

Voting started early on the Tuesday morning and finished by 16:00 in the afternoon. There was some rival singing by supporters of the two protagonists, but voting progressed in an orderly fashion. Pressure had told on the Mbeki camp. The president himself seemed diminished and grey. Finance Minister Trevor Manuel lost his cool and assaulted two journalists with an umbrella. The writing was on the wall, and the verdict came in at 20:30 that evening.

Election organiser Dren Nupen made the long-winded announcement: Zuma had triumphed by 2 329 votes to 1 505. The majority of 58% to 42% showed the Mbeki propaganda campaign over the final three weeks, the likes of which South Africa had never seen, was ineffective. The people had spoken.

The other five positions on the national working committee went to Zuma supporters by roughly similar margins. They are:

Deputy Leader: Kgalema Motlanthe (defeating Dlamini-Zuma), former secretary general, a dependable apparatchik who played his cards well and will probably step in as Mbeki's presidential successor if Zuma is incapacitated or if the court imposes a guilty verdict with a heavy penalty on Zuma, thereby disqualifying him from being elected to parliament.

Chairperson: Baleka Mbete (defeating Joel Netshitenzhe). She is currently Speaker of the National Assembly, and a political lightweight.

Secretary General: Gwede Mantashe (defeating Lekota). He is a highly respected trade unionist, widely regarded as one of the honest men of South African politics.

Deputy Secretary General: Thandi Modise (defeating Thoko Didiza). She is a feminist of the highest integrity. Mbeki saw to it that she was banished to the position of Speaker of the North West provincial legislature after she refused to stop asking uncomfortable questions about the government's highly suspect arms acquisitions deal.

Treasurer General: Mathews Phosa (defeating Mlambo-Ngcuka). A sweet comeback for one of South Africa's most polished politicians.

As could be expected the Zuma camp was as ecstatic as the Mbeki camp was despondent. Many newsworthy and photogenic moments were played out as delegates and the public cooed or cringed. Political theatrics aside, the next day proved a long wait for the names of the 80 additional people elected to the ANC National Executive Committee. The announcement was made at 01:00 on the Friday morning, and showed that although Zuma supporters were in the majority, strong Mbeki supporters survived the long knives.

Zuma made his first speech as ANC leader on Thursday afternoon. The contrast to Mbeki was stark. His speech was to the point and devoid of weird subtexts. He was clearly aware of fears nationally and internationally that he might change macro-economic policy and repeatedly assured everyone and anyone that current policies would remain in place. He spoke candidly about the national crime problem Mbeki has denied, he asked that those infected and affected by HIV/Aids be treated humanely. He spoke of reconciliation in ways Mbeki had not. He hailed Mbeki as a brother and a leader, quashing persistent rumours spread by Mbeki supporters that Zuma might use parliament to unseat Mbeki before the 2009 elections. He proved adept at walking the political tightrope by formally acknowledging Mbeki as leader while subtly serving notice that the guard had changed. At a press conference afterwards he continued in the same vein, leaving the door open for changes to the economic empowerment policy and steering clear of Mbeki's racially-infused barbs.

Mbeki waited until the Friday afternoon to react. He accepted the result, he told journalists at his official residence in Pretoria. But when asked whether he would assist Zuma in preparing to take charge of the country in 2009, his chilling answer pointed to a tough time ahead politically: "Just because you are leader of the ANC, it doesn't mean you will become president of South Africa".

In weighing up the results of the conference, it is worth looking at the effects on Mbeki, Zuma, the ANC, the opposition, and the country - internationally and domestically.

The effect for Mbeki is that his legacy is in disarray. His people have disowned him and his presidency, which promised so much, has indeed become "the dream deferred" as Gevisser foresaw. Much will depend on whether he can show a grace in defeat but chances are that he will serve out his term an embittered man. The old saying goes: It is late in the day when small men cast long shadows. South Africa might face tough personal skirmishes in its political lion's den in the months to come.

For Zuma, conference has been a greater success than he could ever have hoped for. His first speech was very well received and has somehow relaxed the country by moving away from Mbeki's tense racial diatribes. He has followed it up with a much-publicized visit to a (white) woman on her 100th birthday: something Mbeki would never, ever even have contemplated. Zuma has a much stronger leadership group of six in the ANC than Mbeki had. But of course all of this means nothing while the sword of prosecution hovers over his head. With the court case on the roll again, he has to provide true leadership by assuring a jittery judiciary of its independence, by already accepting the court's verdict before the case begins and by ensuring his supporters remain calm. By this his leadership shall be judged, not by whether he becomes president.

The ANC has cleared the first hurdle. Now the next one awaits. It has run a spectacularly well-organised election. That is remarkable in Africa. It has a stronger working committee than before. It has shown that it was not a leadership cult under Mbeki. Now it needs to prove the same point: that constitutionality and the rule of law is more important than the effects of the judicial process on the personal circumstances of its new leader. An important test awaits Africa's oldest liberation movement.

For the opposition, Zuma's election could have an impact on the political balance of power in two provinces. The election of a Zulu as leader should really finally propel the ANC to an outright majority in KwaZulu-Natal, where it should pulverise Inkatha in 2009. In the Western Cape, where Zuma is very unpopular, the ANC could be unseated if two opposition groupings, the DA and the Independent Democrats (ID) can rise above themselves and keep working together. Knowing the ID and the DA, that could be a tough ask!

Internationally, South Africa's policies should not change as they actually rely on a type of non-codified national consensus. To be fair, no-one ever really knows what any new leader will do. But thus far, Zuma and his supporters have maintained no change is on the cards. Per definition it is the alternative to saying change will happen. Obviously the new leadership must receive the benefit of the doubt. Until they falter, we must trust that they might keep the country at an even keel.

But the truly great news about the Polokwane conference has been the indications for South Africa domestically. In a one party dominant state like ours, perpetuation of governance is the greatest danger. The very fact that the leadership could change peacefully and against the will of the ruling elite is actually amazing, especially in an African context. It shows how democracy has taken hold. Note how the result has not been contested. More established democracies have done much worse.

On a more cynical note, if one were to accept, as I tend to, that our country as (currently) a one party dominant state has also, through cronyism, a dysfunctional system of economic empowerment and the centralisation of power, become something of a low-level kleptocracy, this change at the top is just what the doctor ordered. It could of course start us on a clean slate but even if it doesn't, at least it stops the snowball effect of a creeping corruption inherent in almost every ruling elite and its aspiring sycophants by changing the constitution of the ruling elite.

Ken Owen, one of South Africa's most respected veteran journalists, once told me: "When I was growing up, decades ago, people used to say South Africa was five years away from disaster. We might still be."

With Owen's words in mind, whilst it is still uncertain how the ANC will turn out under Zuma's leadership and whilst things might, as ever in South Africa, still go awry, Polokwane could in a best-case scenario be an important step forward for democracy in our country. Only time will tell.

This is an edited version of a talk delivered by Jan-Jan Joubert, chief political reporter of Die Burger, at Harvard University, January 8 2008