On Tuesday at 13h00 I boarded a plane in Johannesburg. Two hours later I arrived in Cape Town to discover that one-third of the cabinet had resigned. I thought, somewhat cynically and mischievously, that if I had been on a six hour flight that afternoon, then with a bit of luck the entire government might have left office!
Well, of course, as we know 48 hours later, Tuesday’s gyrations appeared to be a witch’s brew of calculated malice by the presidency, the last kick of the Mbeki loyalists and an incoherence of tactics and an infirmity of strategy by the rest of the cabinet.
Trevor Manuel cited “reasons of decorum” for his on-again, off-again resignation. To many it seemed the uncoordinated posturing of a prima donna. I don’t believe as experienced a politician as Trevor Manuel, who is also the world’s longest-serving Minister of Finance, could not have foreseen the punishment to our currency and the spooking of the markets which his temporary resignation caused. Well, he caused a run on the rand and caused an afternoon of chaos in the markets. Perhaps he has proven his indispensability to government. Or, maybe, it was an expensive but early signal to the “macro-populists” as he once derided the Vavi-Nzimandi axis of the left, not to “mess with Manuel”. On the other hand, as the former municipal boss of Johannesburg, JF Oberholzer, was fond of observing, “West Park Cemetery is filled with indispensable people.”
So the early days of the post-Mbeki era are far from reassuring. Indeed, given the ANC’s pride in collective politics, and its constant mythologizing of the “discipline of the deployed cadres at all levels of government”, senior ANC members and ministers have, of late, been demonstrating the reverse. They bring to mind the adage of “every man and woman for him or herself.”
Personally, I believe the governance of South Africa is better off without the high-flying of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Stalinistic bullying of Essop Pahad, the serial blundering of Alec Erwin and the fanatical anti-Zionism of Ronnie Kasrils. But, of course, the bulk of the cabinet members who remain represent a pretty shallow bench of ministers - many long past their sell-by date and others whose election to high office has always been inexplicable but for reasons of loyalty to the now-vanquished president, and various imperatives of quota-filling.
A few hours ago, Parliament brought down the final curtain on the Mbeki era when we elected his successor. At the height of my cold war with the former president over AIDS in 2001, Thabo Mbeki compared me to a Shakespearean villain, Prospero in The Tempest. As I contemplate the sad end and baleful legacy of his presidency, one is left with the distinct feeling, or emotion, that it would take several Shakespearean tragedies to do justice to the rise and fall of Thabo Mbeki: his presidency and the forces behind its collapse seem to combine the ambitions of Lady Macbeth, the jealously of Othello, the backstabbing of Iago and, ultimately in its last act, the impotent rage of King Lear.
But we should not, I believe, underestimate what the end of Mbeki and what I call “the politics of Mbekism” means for the governing party and the future politics of our country:
• First, Mbeki’s ascent to office owed a great deal to the politics of exile and his pre-eminence as an ANC prince or dauphin: primogeniture was a key asset in his preferment. In contrast, neither Kgalema Motlanthe, nor Jacob Zuma owe their rise in politics to either their parents or to their overseas experience or contacts. Both are grounded in the politics of prison and Motlanthe’s rise was forged in the furnace of an at-times militant, even Stalinist, trade unionism.
• Second, Thabo Mbeki reanimated in South African politics and gave intellectual respectability to a fairly antique nationalism, replete with lashings of race and division. He abandoned the legacy of reconciliation bequeathed by Nelson Mandela and put in its place the paraphernalia of transformation in which was embedded both corruption and cronyism. There is, of course, no guarantee that matters might not spiral downward under his successors. But in his removal from office South Africa has been liberated from the dangerous fallacy of presidential infallibility, and the overweening arrogance of office caused by the over-accumulation of power in one person and in one institution.
• Third, the brutal, but democratic, toppling of the once all-powerful president of the ANC in December, and nine months later, his even more brutal removal from the country’s presidency has unleashed a tidal wave of resentment and uncertainty. In 1990 Britain’s governing Conservative Party defenestrated their all-powerful Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, notwithstanding her economic accomplishments after 11 years at the helm. The backlash from that seismic event remained with the Tories for more than a dozen years, and four leaders later. The fact and manner of her removal divided and demoralized her party and rendered the movement once dubbed “the most successful election winning machine in the western world”, unelectable in three consecutive general elections. The British Tories are hardly comparable to the ANC, but some parallels are relevant: do not underestimate just how consequential this week and last weekend’s event will be for the politics of the ANC and South Africa. The ANC’s once-vaunted unity has shattered, its ideology is incoherent, and the walking wounded in its ranks will unleash their own revenge. We will feel the eddies and backlash flowing from recent events for decades to come.
• Fourthly, if Mbeki had far too much power, his two successors seem to have almost too little. I did not approve of “Mbekism” - racial nationalism, the over-concentration and centralisation of power and the pretensions of the developmental state. But I knew what it was. But what does Zumaism or Montlantheism stand for? They will say that they are the servants of the “collective”. And no doubt they are. But what does this mean? Is it the lowest common denominator between Cyril Ramaphosa and Julius Malema? At a critical time for South Africa and the world, who will provide the national moral and political leadership this country requires and on what foundation will it rest?
• Finally, for the past fourteen years there has been a remarkable continuity in the basic ecology of electorate - at least in terms of its racial stratification and electoral results cleaving along lines of ethnic identity. The toppling of the ANC’s leadership and the abrupt change in the country’s national guard, and the anger evinced by many at this dramatic turn of events suggests that beneath the surface continuum, a tectonic shift will take place among the voters. At the moment it is formless and even party-less. Furthermore the centrifugal force of our politics remains an extreme form of proportional representations which militates against pre-election coalition formations. However, having tasted blood once and having the screen of power from a political Wizard of Oz, ANC cadres and MPs are unlikely to go back to their previous meek and obsequious ways. The media and the judiciary have also flexed their muscles, after a fairly lengthy slumber during much of the Mbeki presidency. That is likely to continue going forward and our democracy will be the better for it.
The end of “Mbekism” suggests the end not just of one presidency and the demise of a once impregnable political leader. It indicates that politics has changed; the arrogant assumptions and certainties of the past have been challenged. South Africa’s current uncertainty could, over time, lead to far less predictable and far more democratic political outcomes, not immediately, but certainly over time.