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Mbeki’s meekness was a critical weakness

Ousted former president Thabo Mbeki exited with quiet dignity. Privately, however, he warned of potential disaster under Jacob Zuma, who at the party’s Polokwane conference had engineered a miraculous political rehabilitation, to turn the tables on the man who had fired him.

Mbeki, according to Mark Gevisser’s biography, predicted that Zuma would reduce South Africa to “just another African kleptocracy”, riddled with corruption. Others in the Mbeki inner circle discerned in the indifference of the Polokwane plotters to procedural niceties, the spectre of the nation’s hard-won Constitution itself eventually being set aside as irksomely confining.

How prescient they were. Corruption is indeed rampant but despite acknowledging the problem, there is no sign that Zuma’s African National Congress has the ability or inclination to bring it under control.

It seems that less challenging and more rewarding than curbing crime is curbing the Constitutional Court, so the ANC policy conference in June will consider a raft of modification proposals. The motivation is that while the Constitution of 1996 “may have been appropriate for a political transition … it has proven inadequate and even inappropriate for a social and economic transformation phase.”

The intended ANC review of the judicial system is similarly part of a strategy to limit the checks the Court places on the executive arm of government, a judicial power that Zuma and his ministers regularly rail against. Zuma’s oxymoronic and specious justification is: “We don’t want to review the Constitutional Court, we want to review its powers”, and he makes the laughable claim that the Court’s judges take their cues from the media.

One must wonder how these desired changes to SA’s constitutional architecture could come about, since the ANC cannot easily muster the necessary parliamentary majority. That is, not unless it convinces or suborns sufficient opposition MPs or, alternatively, constitutional change were to become a successful populist rallying cry in the next election.

This antipathy of elements within the ANC to the Constitution that it helped create is foreshadowed in a new book by Frank Chikane, head of the presidency in Mbeki’s administration. Much of Eight Days in September, an account of Mbeki’s dramatic recall in 2008, revolves around what Chikane considers to be Mbeki’s under-appreciated political legacy, especially as a continental leader.

Alongside the hagiographical bits there also runs through the text a palpable distress at the hijacking of a ‘moral’ ANC by cadres who lack respect for the party’s traditions and have a reckless disregard for the nation’s Constitution. Chikane describes “an unfolding rot” with the potential of “destroying the [ANC] and the country”.

He argues that the removal of Mbeki before the end of his term was unconstitutional but that the legality or illegality of the “recall” was immaterial to the Zuma faction. Mbeki had to go, and go immediately, irrespective what the constitutional provisions for the removal of a president might decree.

Chikane notes that rather bizarrely, the only voices publicly raised in the defence of the Constitution during the ouster were those of Azapo and Moeletsi Mbeki, the brother of Thabo but also one of his harshest critics. “The media, the [other] political parties … seemed to be ready to close their eyes to the constitutional issues, as they were happy to see Mbeki leaving.”

Mbeki acquiesced because he did not want to plunge the country into instability, nor did he want precipitate a split in the ANC. In retrospect, it was a bad decision: the unforeseen and unhappy result of that meekness was to fuel among the ANC’s new leadership an arrogant disdain towards the Constitution.

Warning against the ANC’s conflation of state and party, and the consequent erosion of constitutional values, Chikane writes movingly, “The party I am loyal to cannot require me to violate or compromise the Constitution … For this what we struggled and many paid a price for, even unto death.”

Saunderson-Meyer was consultant editor for Frank Chikane’s Eight Days in September: The Removal of Thabo Mbeki, published this week by Picador Africa.