Steven Friedman
Steven Friedman

Now we know what we aren’t — but what are we?

OK, so we know now that we are not Zimbabwe. It will take a whole lot longer before we know clearly what we are — or, rather, what we are becoming.

The key implication of the Zuma victory is, surely, the point made by some grassroots delegates and a few commentators this week: that it has shown that our democracy will not follow the path that is meant to be inevitable when liberation movements lead countries to majority rule.

In no post-independence African country has a sitting president been peacefully and democratically defeated by his own party. While some countries have, in the past few years, seen democratic processes that have rejected sitting presidents, none has ousted a leader democratically so soon after majority rule. And it may well be that no liberation movement anywhere in the world has seen such a swift assertion by its membership of its right to decide who should lead it.

This is crucial because, in many people’s minds, there is an inevitability about countries, particularly those in Africa, that are led to majority rule by liberation movements: the new leadership becomes immune to removal by the electorate or its own members, prompting decades of decay. Zimbabwe is the most immediate and the most topical example, but hardly the only one.

The ANC vote signalled that we are on a different path in which leaders can be turfed out by those they lead and in which, therefore, high office is always a conditional gift — you keep it only as long as those who gave it to you allow you to keep it.

Important as this is, we are not necessarily riding off into a new sunrise simply because the ANC changed a leader democratically. We may be headed for a more vigorous democracy that would surely make us a more successful country, better able to deal with its challenges. But many tests and trials lie on the way before we can be confident of this.

First, for many South Africans, including many who work in, or vote for, the ANC, the benefits of an election for ANC president are outweighed by the costs of the result. Many have deep misgivings about Zuma and would have much preferred the chance to choose someone else. More than a few, for example, wish that Mbeki had withdrawn months ago to give Cyril Ramaphosa a clear shot at the presidency.

This raises the possibility that the gap between the political leadership and the country that has so hampered progress since we became a democracy has not been bridged; that all we have seen is a shift from one elite figure to another in a process from which the people will continue to be excluded. And so, if we are to move closer to becoming a more democratic society, Zuma and his supporters need to know that this vote was far more a rebellion against Mbeki than an embrace of Zuma — they need also to remember that the more than nine million people who vote ANC but don’t belong to it did not choose him.

That means that Zuma cannot assume the support of either the ANC or the country — he must work to achieve it. Only if he does this are we likely to see a government more in touch with the society it governs.

Second, we do not know yet whether the Zuma supporters here at Polokwane were making a lasting statement that they want an ANC in which leaders account to the led or whether they were merely switching their allegiance from one leader to another. Are those who challenged the decisions of a chair chosen by the Mbeki camp going to hold to account one chosen by the Zuma camp? More generally, will their willingness to challenge the old leaders apply also to the new ones — or will they now become cheerleaders and foot soldiers, not active members? Will the Mbeki camp remain active in the ANC, will it hold the new leadership to account and, if it does, will it be allowed to do so? On this will depend whether we are seeing a more democratic and vibrant ANC with open expression of healthy difference or the old movement with its stress on respect for leaders and public unity under new management.

Third, what future is there in the new ANC for the 42% who voted for Mbeki? A movement that offers no active role for the representatives of four of every 10 members will remain in conflict with itself — or lose a large chunk of its membership. Equally important, much of the skills and experience that the Zuma camp needs are to be found in the Mbeki fold. If the Mbeki people are not made welcome, the democratic breakthrough will be undermined by continued conflict and decline in the quality of party and government leadership. An early test is whether the national executive being elected this week adequately represents people who supported Mbeki.

Fourth, what if Zuma is charged with corruption? Will his supporters insist he is being victimised and challenge the legal process? Will they maintain that he is innocent until proven guilty and so insist on him leading the ANC into the 2009 election even if he has not been acquitted? Or will he graciously withdraw, leaving his new deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, to become our next president? This may decide whether we enjoy a smooth transition to the next state president. It may also determine whether we establish the principle that all, including victorious ANC presidents, are subject to the law.

Finally, how will the tensions between the ANC and the ANC in government be managed now that the “two centres of power” that this election was meant to prevent is here? On Tuesday night, a senior civil servant suggested that Zuma and Mbeki need to talk “right now” if the smooth running of government between now and 2009 is to be secured. They probably did not talk, then but they need to do it now.

If government over the next 15 months is hampered by constant conflict between it and the ruling party, again the gains of the past few days will be undermined by a further decline in government performance — there is no point in people choosing if their choices cannot be translated into reality. And it is probably this danger, rather than the false alarms that have been raised these past few days, that should be the uppermost concern of every South African, whatever our view on the ANC.

Further along, one effect of this week’s events may be that more government decisions will be taken by the ANC rather than government officials. That will make the government more responsive to the people who gathered in Polokwane — but, if the one in three voters who vote for other parties are excluded, then a government more responsive to Polokwane’s majority will still not be able to serve all the people.

How the new ANC responds to these realities may well determine whether Polokwane’s democratic dawn brings more light to the entire country.

  • MidaFo

    In the balance I cannot think of a situation so tantalisingly close to the ideal of ‘Government by the people for the people’. Perhaps we will get it. If not? Well, if Mbeki can be ousted as shown, then so can Zuma.

    This ANC of ours can be a world leader. I am proud to be a South African.

    I admire Mbeki, he is a canny player and he is not finished, and I feel for his supporters now, but I have never enjoyed politics so much. Better than soccer or rugby and even test cricket!

    This is good democratic stuff.

  • Lebogang

    as ever: analytical, fair, and robust. indeed polokwane is only as meaningful as it creates new political spaces and faces and clearly helps entrench the democratic/constitutional ideals that people like Zuma spent much of their lives fighting for.

  • Nobhala Phesheya

    “More than a few, for example, wish that Mbeki had withdrawn months ago to give Cyril Ramaphosa a clear shot at the presidency.” Is this not rather condescendig on Ramaphosa? After all, it was not up to Mbeki but branch nominations. Please don’t blame everything on Mbeki.

    A Cape Town branch did nominate Ramaphosa but I doubt he was in a position to accept anything, given his BEE liabilities to Standard Bank.

    It seems that people like Ramaphosa no longer enjoy political legitimacy with the ANC branches because of their readiness to abandon the Freedom Charter for oligarchic BEE.

    If you ask me, I don’t want to be lead rented BEE men like Ramaphosa, Macozoma, etc.

  • khosi


    I am confused. How can 58% to 42% be deemed a landslide? And why is the ANC democratic process called a humiliation for the vanquished? Commentary on these results have, at least to me, defied sense.

    I also doubt if Cyril Ramaphosa had a hope in stopping the Zuma tsunami. Look at what happened to Sexwale. The guy ended up going to the Zuma camp with his tail firmly between his legs. Hardly what we saw on the BBC Hardtalk. All things equal, no one in the ANC could have come as close to JZ as Mbeki did. Period. Just look at the nominations and the fact that no many people came out publicly in support of him. Lets stop hypothesizing.

    As for Kgalema Motlanthe, how big a hand did he have in the Zuma tsunami success. As the SG, was he not the guy who was closer to the branches than both Zuma and Mbeki? Methinks he was the biggest weapon the JZ camp had.

    Of late i have seen Cde Vavi wearing a suit and tie instead of the casual red golf shirt. I mean one sees the guy holding his own at presidential boxes at soccer matches. Hmm

  • Paul Whelan

    Once again SF wants to read too much into what may or may not be a useful development because he always begs the question that SA is a ‘democracy’ (whatever that is supposed to mean). Rather let us look at what has happened.

    The ANC has not been, and cannot be at any time in the foreseeable future, ‘reborn’ and what is misleadingly called ‘the people’ have not ‘spoken': a mere 4000+ card-carrying members of the ruling party decided what happened at Polokwane while the rest of us looked on anxiously.

    One faction has simply accomplished its long predicted victory over its opponents. SA remains a monocracy and the course now for anyone who cares enough is to follow events on to the next stage with a close eye to whatever (s)he considers is best from an individual point of view and that of the country’s.

  • ross

    Paul- it’s hardly unusual for parties to nominate their (in this case de facto) presidential candidates without consulting the majority of the country. In fact, there’s no other way of doing it really, is there? Otherwise it wouldn’t be a primary or a nomination, it would be a general election! And when 60%+ vote for Zuma in 09 then what can you call that other than ‘democratic’? I don’t think there’s any doubt that what happened in Polokwane was pretty democratic, and that what happens in ’09 will be demonstrate the democratic will of the majority. Maybe not your will – or mine for that matter. But democratic nonetheless. The problem is not that it’s undemocratic, but that democracy alone is not enough. Democracies can still make mistakes – as even Dr Friedman conceded, “we are not necessarily riding off into a new sunrise simply because the ANC changed a leader democratically”. Given who Zuma is, who his supporters are, and also the way in which the economic moderates have been sidelined, there is a lot to be concerned about, and there is a lot of debate that needs to take place, and hopefully, because of the democratic nature of the country, that debate will be facilitated. I think it’s sensible to acknowledge that what’s going on is democratic, but also acknowledge that democracy is only a necessary precursor to development and social upliftment, but doesn’t automatically deliver it.

  • Piet Croucamp

    Interesting how democracy has been redefined. Friedman makes no separation between state and party, he does not seem to see any danger in the conceptual and operational merger between the two. Is it democracy when Zuma is elected as a consequence of the anti-Mbeki sentiments prevailing, when the elected’s record violates good governance, justice and human rights. At the conference it was obvious that the organizational fabric of the contest was questioned, not only the various opinions on policy, but the processes and procedures. Friedman paints a rosy picture and likes to taint realists as pessimists. Intellectual confidence is one thing, intellectual arrogance another…

  • Paul Whelan

    Ross and Piet –

    The endless confusion arises from the fact that SF and all other commentators proceed from the premise that SA is a ‘democracy’ and use the word, which has no more precise meaning than, say, ‘pudding’, as if what it involves is commonly understood and agreed.

    Let us look instead at facts, at what happens. What we have seen at Polokwane is one faction overthrow its opponents by the basic democratic procedure of the vote – within the party. It is possible to claim that augurs well for the future of ‘democracy’ in SA, and let us all hope that it does, but it is a claim only. Among many other considerations, it is impossible to know whether a majority of the people of South Africa endorse the outcome and, whether they do or not, the situation remains what it was: SA is a monocracy of one party that will continue to act as it sees fit, claiming that it speaks at all times for another abstraction ‘the people’.

    The debate is unreal, false. Try changing the word ‘democracy’ to ‘monocracy’. It becomes easier to understand events because a monocracy does not behave like a ‘democracy': they are different things.

    But in case this prompts yet another sterile debate around words, the best way out of the present muddle is to consider how SA is governed: where and why it falls short; what could be improved; what institutions are missing.

  • Nic

    Piet, you raise an interesting issue. The underlying theme appears to be that, what is ggod for the ANC is good for the country”.

    I am of the view that this is (not necessarily) the case. Look at the people elected to the NEC and the picture becomes clearer…

    The sudden absence of the power-brokers, financiers and backers of Zuma is worrying. Where are the Shaiks? When will all the favours, monetary and otherwise, owed by Zuma be called in?

    What happened in Polokwane cannot be termed “Democracy in action” by any stretch of the imagination.

  • Liansky

    Its quite interesting to note that there will never be a mention of how thabo mbeki was the leader of democratic country that shook the hand of the winner and stood tall like the giant of a man mbeki is. Long live my president for life and death to the anti-black ‘analyst’.

  • Hamba Kahle

    Quote: “OK, so we know now that we are not Zimbabwe.”

    So, Steven Friedman, you actually KNOW this? Yet, in the very next sentence you say: “It will take a whole lot longer before we know clearly what we are — or, rather, what we are becoming.”

    Which one will it be? Right now, soon- or never?

  • Ralph

    Zuma did not win in Limpopo: Thabo Mbeki just lost! It is difficult to follow this analysis because it does not see Zuma ‘s victory as an expression of a distinct political project, but continues to locate Zuma in relation to Mbeki. The vote in Polokwane was cast in favour of Zuma, the idea that Zuma maight have lost had Mbeki stepped down to allow a ‘third’ candidate to run is mere hypothetical bogus.

    South Africa ‘s political landscape is simply bifurcated into the two camps reflected in Zuma and Mbeki. On one hand there are elites who love Thabo ‘s take on politics but are unconfortable with his tendencies to ram them out of debates. On the other hand you have the typical unsophisticated third world camp whose politics is that of bread and butter as expressed in the form of Zuma. Where would someone like Cyril Ramaphosa fit in this structure!

    For a candidate like Cyril to emerge, the society should have such a space: His candidature could not create a non existent third way. Of course there are few of us who belong in-between Zuma and Thabo. Thus, those who understand the need to be realistic about poverty and HIV-AIDS in the country while at the same holding the belief that you need a solid leadership capable of fully intergrating South Africa within the global community. However, I’m talking about a small number of people, too insignificant to constitute a political force at this point of our democracy!

    Our political direction is clearly determined by the structure of our society, and we need to come to terms with that!

  • Craig

    Merry Christmas Liansky you old Humbug – sounds like you need a hug

  • http://Webmail Misha & Mvulane

    We can only pray that JZee is prosecuted and Motlhante takes over. That will be the most ideal situation. Neither Mbeki nor Zuma supporters can complain.

  • MidaFo


    You have coined a significant term and supplied the relevant wish: “death to the anti-black ‘analyst'” In doing so you show they are stupid enough to be the source of popularity for the slogans they hate that sing of machine guns.

    Really strange people.

    So let me stir here.

    These ‘analysts’ could not only put Zuma in power but will also blame everyone else for any disastrous consequences.

    Let us call a spade a spade: white retards (trash) in positions of influence and control are the most serious problem our country faces. They are educated, favoured, economically able, linguistically dominant, perfectly positioned—–and self worshipping. Consequently although they are the ones who should be leading the way, they never have; well not forwards anyway.

    For proof of its prevalence read one or two of the above and many other posts in Thought Leader. You could swear it was all written by God, except that God seeks the good and punishes the vainglorious.

  • T. Kwetane

    Professor Friedman’s analysis will be very comforting to those who held the view that we were Zimbabwe in waiting (Justice Malala, Mondli Makhanya and Xolela Mangcu spring to mind) and I suspect that Prof belong to this “relieved class”, if not why “OK, so we know now that we are not Zimbabwe”?

    I knew that we were not Zimbambwe and we will never be like Zimbabwe. I did not need Polokwane to know or believe this. The question Prof has always been: What will we be with Zuma on top and him owing favors to all those who have helped him get there? The second question was and is – with them (Zuma supporters, Vavi and Blade) criticizing everything Mbeki has done what is it that they will do differently? The third question related to the second one is if all the “Mbeki/Manuel/Mboweni” policies were wrong with regard to the economy, quite diplomacy, inflation targeting, crime, HIV and AIDS as COSATU, SACP, and Zuma supporters have argued what is it that they will be doing differently?

    Listening to them after Polokwane it seems as if nothing (policy-wise) will change. The question then is, why lie? What are we to do with people who will do anything including lying to get to positions of power? What else are they lying about? What other lies are they going to tell to stay there? Must we expect more lies from them?

    *Self – interest*

    I was really looking forward to that “FREE” education thing. Since everything was going to be free I was thinking of how many degrees I can do. I have always wanted to do honors and masters in economics (my curiosity), do an MBA (a need) and go back and finish the unfinished job by doing a honors and then a masters degree in Microbiology or a related field like Medical Microbiology. As a Project Management drop – out (because of finances) I was thinking of finishing that as well. By the time real people with brains took over (after Zuma’s second term) I would have finished everything and living lavishly somewhere in the Cape.

    In short, I am not a happy man.

    Happy holidays to you all! See you all next year!

  • XNM

    I am thankful someone has said it. It is better that Zuma be charged and we have Kgalema as President. That will be much better. However, Mbeki’s third term as ANC president could not have spelt doom for SA as a female president in the name of Nkosazana Zuma could have taken over as the country’s president. To say that Mbeki did not groom a successor is untrue. In my view he did not groom One successor he groomed a few and was unwilling until the last moment to choose Nkosazana amongst the chosen ones.

    Mbeki has served this country and the ANC very well and history will judge him favourably. He has displayed tremendous skill in the midst of constant attacks and pressure from questionable forces. I wish him all the best may God bless him. Kwameh Nkrumah of Ghana is still being revered by his fellow countrymen. I bet it will be the same with Mbeki.

    If there is a person participating in this blog who knows where to get DVDs of Mbeki’s speeches can he/she advise me where to buy them, particularly the following:
    1. I am an African
    2. 52nd ANC Conference
    3. Today’s interview – 21 December 2007

    Mbeki’s speeches will be hot property 10 to 15 years from now. I want my children to know the truth when they ask: who is this Mbeki?

  • aktshabalala

    Misha and Mvulane,
    I have been following your inputs, though at a distance. I cannot believe that the twins can reverse the Saying :”Kulele kunye”(two heads better than one) But you are two and therefore should benefit from collective cumulative intelligence. There is now wishful thinking can take us anywhere. If you cannot beat them join them. Your duty and mine is to listen to what the ANC is saying “Unite behind Jzee and Cde Thabo Mbeki. Anything else will just cause you a heart attack. I am not spiteful really, but tring to make you live your day as though it was the last.

    As for the minority voting for the majority; this is not true. Were you not invited to join the branch. Yes, Did you join ?No. Did the branch members not vote? Yes. Did the representative sample not go to Polokwane? They did. So what is your problem, Paul?

  • lgmathameni

    were they so blind and deaf to vote for Mshini wami, what a waste of time and money, my brother told me that one of the hotels around polokwane walks away with +/- R3m, mind u their lodgers are not even on the NEC.

  • Paul Whelan


    Once more, very briefly: let us look at facts, at what happens, rather than at words and claims.

    With the best will in the world it is hardly possible for all SA citizens to join and be active members of the ANC even if they wished to, and it does not seem unreasonable to assume that many would not wish to.

    It is also possible that one reason some citizens may not wish to join is that they have become disillusioned with the ANC’s performance, though of course no one knows if that is the case, or what their numbers are if it is the case.

    In what sense are these citizens who are excluded either by circumstances or choice from being active members of the ANC ‘represented’ under the present system?

    But for the sake of the discussion, let us assume that all citizens could be and were active members of the ANC. The final decision among them would then place the elected leaders impregnably in power even if the majority voting for them was extremely slim.

    We must be careful what we wish for. It seems that monocracy describes our present condition better than ‘democracy’, a catch-all word that can mean everything only because it means nothing.

  • Liansky

    Midafo, this is a chalenge that i eagerly await to take up but i can only acces a pc tomorow. In the meantime, could you please elaborate on what you have written so that there is no claims of misunderstanding when i steamroll ove your logic.

  • Steven Friedman

    As usual (I hope), I am happy to let the debate flow without putting in my oar. I will restrict myself to two points.
    First, I am perfectly aware of the difference between a party and a state. I happen to think that if a party which wins 70% of the registered vote chooses to vote out one leader and choose another it will, over time, have a positive democratic impact on our political system. Time will tell wherher I am right, but do not distort my argument to make your point.
    Second, to T Kwenate. I know the difference between South Africa and Zimbabwe. But you only have to look at the comments here or follow the public debate or look at international coverage to know that many people out there insist that there is no difference. Pointing out the difference is therefore important. Why you think that, by pointing out the difference, I am showing that I did not think there was one, beats me.

  • cool down.

    Why must we everthing so complicated.Wasn’t simply
    pay back time because Pres.Mbeki had the guts to fire
    his corrupt deputy who after all just like Fidel
    Castro is the peoples champion and now with the help of ex-Mks hijacked the ANC,all in aid to help the poor!!
    He could not properly manage his personal financial affairs,had ties with corrupt convicted fraudsters.
    He has no qualms of having unprotected sex with an
    HIV-positive woman,young enough to be his daughter.
    He is wasting millions in legal fees to prevent
    documents that might cast light on what appear some
    shady deals being obtained.
    Now tell me more,is he
    the right person to lead South Africa?
    If he is really free of corruption he should spend
    millions in legal fees to procure documents proving
    his innocence or is it a question of the gentleman
    protests too much?

  • CK

    Dr Friedman, what are the implications of setting the trial date in the second half of 2008, i.e. just a few months before next general elections in 2009. Will this lead to the revival of the tsunami tides?

  • Piet Croucamp

    “I happen to think that if a party which wins 70% of the registered vote chooses to vote out one leader and choose another it will, over time, have a positive democratic impact on our political system.” 1) If that party happens to be a liberationist party the complex dynamics of electing leaders has a history that speaks for itself. 2) To explain the contest between Mbeki and Zuma as a vote process only can only be naive. 3) The real contest in SA’s political system is not only about the nature of our democracy, but whether democracy is actually a good thing.

  • Steven Friedman

    To CK – good question. If Jacob Zuma is indeed tried and convicted in late 2008, it is possible that his supporters would see that as a cause to push even harder for him to become state president. (If he was acquitted, I assume he would become ANC candidate for president). But it is highly unlikely that things will happen that way.
    First, lawyers I speak to find it highly unlikely that the trial will be finished in 2008 – it is not even certain that evidence will be led during next year. Second, even if they are wrong and Zuma were to be tried and convicted next year his lawyers have prepared legal challenges which will take years to resolve.
    Unless charges are dropped, then, the likeliest scenario is that the ANC will choose its candidate for president in 2009 with Zuma’s legal situation unresolved. That could play itself out politically in a number of ways, but another pro-Zuma tsunami in the wake of a definitive judgment in court seems highly unlikely.

  • Paul Whelan

    Piet –

    Does ‘democracy’ in SA mean a SA ruled permanently by the ANC?

    For those who reply Yes, the difficulty is no longer whether that is better described as monocracy than ‘democracy’, a debate they can easily choose to ignore: it has become whether they mean an ANC led by Mbeki and his supporters, or an ANC led by Zuma and his? This cannot be ignored. If they mean the first, it does not secure ‘democracy’ for those who would want the second – and, of course, vice versa.

    A way out of this dilemma can only be found by the various party factions reaching an accommodation. But whatever happens, what all factions call ‘the people’ when they need them and at all other times ‘the masses’ will have had no say in the outcome, just as they have not ‘spoken’ in determining events so far.

  • CK

    Dr Friedman, thanx for your response. I find your analysis Saturday that the “political conspiracy” being bandied around is starting to loose its tsunami sting. In the wake of the timing of the charges and the Selebi factor?

    What are the implications of the threat to recall Mbeki and his coalition of the wounded and replace them by the BophuthaZuma cadres?

  • T. Kwetane


    This kind of engagement and debate gives me hope that even if Zuma were to be our President come 2009 we will survive his 10 year rule.

    Ck you ask some interesting questions.

    Paul Whelan, I hear you, I however still need to read up on this monocracy thing, or would you summarize it for us.

    Prof, you have been amazingly consistent, I’m impressed. Re- read the piece, I was on a tangent. I blame the attention disorder thing on being tired.

    Piet Croucamp, interesting points you raise but I am not sure if I follow you.

    Cool Down, you have argued my point, so I won’t repeat what you have said.

    MidaFo and Liansky – what happened to you people? Zuma is re – charged and no post from you whatsup with that?

    XNM, when you get the DVDs please shout!!!

    Good stuff everyone.

    Prof when are you posting, I has been days already.

  • Steven Friedman

    To CK again – I am in the process of writing something on the likely scenarios next year which will hopefully answer your questions. I will post it before I leave for a holiday on Tuesday. Happy New Year to you and everyone else who has commented.

  • Paul Whelan

    T. Kwetane –

    I can only offer a load of questions, if they are of any use. It’s the answers that count.

    Aren’t we misled simply to swallow mere words, especially ‘democracy’? Try defining ‘democracy’. You will see it is impossible to satisfy everyone.

    Let us rather go by what we see and experience of government.

    A good place to start seems: Is the ANC governing well? Where could it be improved? How? What part can a voter play in this? (As you say under SF’s other current article,(s)he only has one vote.)

    What, actually, is the ANC now? An organisation run by Mbeki and his faction, or one run by Zuma and his? Isn’t this a split? How did it come about and why? Can the split be healed? How? What part can a voter play in this?

    ‘Democracy’ can mean anything because it means nothing: so it is what people declare it to be, or make it – or accept. All that is certain is that what the word is generally taken to involve has changed enormously over two thousand years.

    What do I the voter think ‘democracy’ should mean today?

    Monocracy is simpler. As you know, it means the rule of one – not literally of one person, but of one interest. Monarchy is the obvious historical example of monocracy; autocracy is another. But there are aristocracies, theocracies, caliphates, oligarchies, juntas, Committees of Public Safety, soviets – and any other words the rule of one interest has gone by all round the world over the centuries.

    Allowing for the games that can be played with mere words, what is SA closest to – ‘democracy’ or monocracy? Is that a good thing? Can it change? How?

    What part can I the voter play in this?