Brent Meersman
Brent Meersman

Frank Chikane’s cautionary tale

Thabo Mbeki “looked like a soldier who was ready to die, if he had to, for the sake of his country; a lamb to be slaughtered for a cause”.

This is Frank Chikane’s description of his leader waiting for word from the ANC on whether Mbeki was to step down from office.

Chikane, who was director general in Mbeki’s presidency all those years ago, gives a first person account of Mbeki’s last days in Eight Days in September: The Removal of Thabo Mbeki.

More than once, he draws religious parallels and paints Mbeki as a saintly martyr, even referencing the crucifixion.

At a discussion of his book held at the Cape Town Press Club, Chikane was asked why Mbeki had agreed to his procedurally unconstitutional removal by the party and not Parliament.

“Lives would have been lost,” Chikane replied. Mbeki, he maintains, sacrificed himself for the stability of the country.

A recurring theme in Chikane’s book is the conflation of party and state and its dangers. In this view, Chikane characterised the manner in which Mbeki was ousted as bordering on a coup d’etat.

Many feel Mbeki let his side down, others that he betrayed the Constitution, and that by allowing the speaker of Parliament to tell him when he should resign, he violated his oath of office as state president.

Chikane is correct when he asserts that because opposition political parties and the media were almost as keen to see the back of Mbeki as most of his comrades in the ANC were, they did not sufficiently interrogate the ANC’s recall and the dangerous precedent it set for the constitutional order. Only the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) queried it.

On the other hand, Africa is so full of leaders who don’t know when they should go, who dig in their heels and drag their countries down with them, that people were simply relieved to see a peaceful change of guard.

Mbeki’s attempt to get a third term had many worried. Democrats were again alarmed by his hope to be de facto president as president of the party pulling the strings of the executive (as Putin did in Russia).

One cannot say what would have happened if he had refused to go. It is hard to imagine the ANC moving a motion of no confidence in Parliament against their president.

Chikane writes, “Lines between [P]arliament and the party were again blurred and [P]arliament was used as if it were a representative of the ruling party rather than elected representatives of the people.”

Chikane, it appears, is a late convert to parliamentary democracy. It is precisely under Mbeki and Chikane’s term as DG in the presidency that Parliament was turned into a toothless rubber stamp for the executive. The ANC then and now continues to see itself as the only legitimate “parliament of the people”, not Parliament.

The cadres’ loyalty, Chikane writes, is to the party not the state. “Comrades believe that the laws of secrecy apply only to those outside their faction or party.” Those in positions of power are prepared to illegally share state secrets and break the law.

Mbeki’s summary removal from office was based on the controversial Nicholson judgment that claimed political interference and manipulation had prejudiced the case against Jacob Zuma. (In Nicholson’s opinion Zuma should have been charged for corruption at the same time as Schabir Shaik.)

Unlike the endless appeals process in the disciplinary hearing of ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, Mbeki was given no opportunity by the ANC NEC to defend himself, even as numerous commentators in the legal profession at the time were critical of the judgment, and correctly predicted it would be overturned.

That Mbeki’s eviction was extremely shabby we can agree. Mbeki wasn’t even allowed to pack his personal belongings at his official residence, and was denied a parliamentary farewell.

Chikane indulges in a lot of sympathy-seeking for and flattery of the former president. Sometimes it is effective; sometimes it is unintentionally comic-ironic:  Mbeki “always took a discussion beyond the ordinary to a level that stretched the imaginations of his listeners to a point where many simply failed to comprehend”.

Many of us had that feeling listening to Mbeki’s ramblings. This inability to communicate because his interlocutors are all too stupid is, we are told, “why his advisers were few and far between”.

Much of this book involves whitewashing Mbeki’s legacy, some of it beggars belief. Chikane views Mbeki’s retention of Mugabe as a bulwark against Western interference. He makes no mention that it was yet another example of keeping one of the big men of Africa fraudulently in power against the majority will of the electorate in that country.

We still haven’t seen the election observer reports Mbeki supressed. Chikane even goes as far as to suggest Mbeki’s own removal was because international powers objected to Mbeki’s approach to Zimbabwe. He presents no evidence for this.

By explanation of Mbeki’s manifest unpopularity, Chikane makes much use of the hoax email scandal. “Whoever was responsible for producing and disseminating the emails achieved their objectives.”

But Chikane fails to see the gullibility of the former president who seized upon the emails (which were soon after revealed to be fake). Mbeki has only himself to blame. He exercised very poor judgment; his paranoia got the better of him.

Chikane continues in defence of Mbeki that it is unfair to blame him for policy when policy is set by the collective in the ANC. And yet, we know that both GEAR and Mbeki’s bizarre Aids policies were imposed high-handedly from above by Mbeki as dual president of the ANC and the country.

The ANC as a whole must surely take responsibility for acquiescing to his will, but Mbeki as the leader deserves the rap.

On Aids, Mbeki is painted as a champion of the South bravely standing up against Big Pharma, when the truth is that civil society and the Treatment Action Campaign, his arch enemies, did umpteen times more than Mbeki did in the battle against exploitation. It was more their victory than his.

Nor does Chikane mention that when the battle was finally won, Mbeki refused to take advantage of the victory for the poor against Western patent rights. Instead he was appealing the Constitutional Court judgment that would have given effect to the victory. Part of Mbeki’s legacy is that we now spend R4.3-billion annually importing ARV generics from India and elsewhere, when if he had acted at the time we might have been the exporters today.

Reviews of the book have been attacked for being anti-ANC, but they merely reflect the extremely grim picture Chikane paints of his party, a liberation movement at times almost unrecognisable to Mbeki.

Polokwane is where the mask slipped. The country saw the uglier side of the party that rules it: the “unbecoming behaviour of the delegates, the rudeness, the vulgarity”, “an organisation that began to feed on its own”.

One thing becomes vividly apparent in Chikane’s telling of the story: how time and again our secrecy laws and our intelligence services wreck democratic process. Clearly, under the ANC’s current plans with the Protection of State Information Bill and the Intelligence General Laws Amendment Act, it is set to get far worse.

Chikane also asserts that the bottom line on why Mbeki had to go ngoko (now!), and not at the end of his term a few months down the line, was that Zuma’s supporters “feared that as long as Mbeki was president the [corruption] case [against Zuma] would be reinstituted”.

Unsurprisingly, charges were dropped by the NPA and, shortly after Zuma came to power, the Scorpions disbanded. With the ANC’s current hostile attitude to the judiciary and the Constitution, one must ask how far will Zuma and his supporters be prepared to go now that he is in office, if this is what – according to Chikane – they were capable of doing before.

Postscript: Because slipping standards have become a hallmark of our publishing industry, the pedant in me must mention the sloppy proofreading. Besides much repetition (almost a complete sentence in one case) and the immature use of exclamation marks, I found: “nor was he able to cope up with all the personal e-mails”;  “to deal with his personal belongs”; “to try to cause him take sides in the conflict”, “Mbeki did not endear with country”.

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