INEVITABLY, the decision by the ANC’s national executive committee to recall former president Thabo Mbeki was always going to be controversial. But perhaps, depending on which school of thought you come from, it has exposed some deep-seated fault lines in our body politic that will help the country as it continues molding a new society from the debris of the apartheid edifice.
That, two weeks after the watershed decision, the debate over whether this was in the national interest is raging is understandable. Never in the country’s nascent democracy has there been such a single event that triggers such a gamut of emotions. From the chattering classes to those who are at the lowest rungs of society, this is the only talking point.
As expected, many people are wondering what will happen to Thabo Mbeki. Will he simple disappear from the country’s political theatre? Will he follow his King Lea inspired advice to Madiba that that the sage retire to rural Qunu in the Eastern Cape ‘to tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies and hear poor rogues talk of court news’?
There is nothing wrong with a nation talking with itself – there is nothing wrong with introspection at a time like this.
That is exactly what we all did in June 2005 when Mbeki found strength and courage from the inferences of a high court judge to justify his belief that Jacob Zuma’s position in the cabinet had become untenable. At the time, the world applauded Mbeki and indeed the Judge Hillary Squires’s judgment had roasted JZ’s goose.
While the hoi-polloi disagreed, the upper middle class thought reason had prevailed. In truth however, Zuma’s axing did more to boot out an outsider than cleanse our government of a man whose position had become untenable. He was also a victim of the G8 conference in Glen Eagles. Things have gone pear shaped since then. Once again the nation is talking.
But there is one thing I fail to understand about Mbeki – especially his reasoning. Long before returning from exile, it was always clear that Mbeki’s fate was not in the hands of the general membership of the ANC. He was never popular. In fact many thought he got away with too many things while other comrades were severely clobbered by the leadership for not walking the straight and narrow line at the time when a minor cock up could cost lives.
Today, MK cadres — resting on JZ’s bosoms – tell any reporter who is prepared to grant them an ear that they felt T’bose was a law unto himself. They thought he took advantage of OR’s soft spot for him and often marched out of step with the rest of the cadres. TM’s rise to power and his triumph in the 1993 elective conference in Durban did not come as a result of his popularity among the rank and file. Other popular leaders did his bidding. His bulldogs intimidated all contenders and publicly humiliated dissenters. With many of the potential rivals out of the way, the tragic death of SACP secretary Chris Hani only served to accelerate his ascent to power. His clean sweep at the Mafikeng conference in 1997 also came from the popularity of his backers like JZ, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and others.
The signs of his diminishing powers were clear during the Stellenbosch conference in 2002 where his rivalry with Madikizela-Mandela nearly embarrassed him. By then the allegations that Zuma had feasted from the arms deal trough were already swirling. Such has been the ferocity of the dog fight between the two leaders since then that at some point Zuma sympathisers and ANC supporters – their membership was never confirmed – burned T-shirts bearing Mbeki’s face while others staged walkouts from public addresses by the ANC leader.
If Mbeki had been the supremely intelligent operator that he is made out to be, he should have seen the writing on the wall. He should have then decided to take the nation into his confidence. At the height of his influence, Mbeki should have changed the electoral laws and put his fate in the hands of the voting public. Given his lack of popularity within the ranks of the party, his fate was never safe in the hands of 3 000 ANC delegates. They never liked him. They were force fed him by the elders. Even his father Govan Mbeki did not give him his blessings to lead an organisation as complex as the ANC broad church.
The demise of the power of the elders – to an extent as a result of Mbeki’s centralisation of power – and the viciousness of his sword left him in the cold. So, if Mbeki is as smart as we all say he is and is such a democrat, why did he not change the electoral laws and put his fate in the hands of the voters? It would have been a shrewd move indeed. But it would not have surprised people who have read of the man’s style being described as comprising Machiavellian tendencies. That would have given South Africans a real democracy rather than the farce we are now fed by our rulers. It would have given the voter the power to choose his leaders. Mbeki would account to the citizens and not Luthuli House. And the citizens wouldn’t have asked him to fall on his sword as Luthuli House did. He would have started his campaign with a review of the Chapter nine institutions, which are draining the fiscus.
Such a review would ultimately include a review of the electoral laws and citizens would support a move that would give them power over their elected representatives. Elections would stop being a once-every-five-year event that gives politicians blank cheques to do as they please with the vote until the next round.
All people in democracies – no matter how dumb they maybe – have a right to elect their leaders. Even if they end up electing a despot, it’s their democratic right. And in a democracy, people get the government they deserve. Why should Africans not be allowed to vote for their choices of despots when the so-called civilised world is already being run by despots – brought into office through the ballot?
Some of my friends say a review of the electoral system could see us ending up with someone like Tony Leon for a leader. I think that would be sad for Africans in this country – but it would be democracy. And they say democracy is an arse.
Surely, if Mbeki is as smart, shrewd and as calculating a politician as we have read of him in recent volumes, he should have figured this. That would have made him the darling of the voters, transformed us into a real democratic state and, most importantly, saved his skin.