08 Oct 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
Something that centres on a vanquished leader appears to be happening on the local election front that calls to mind humorist Peter de Vries’s words: ‘Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be,’ writes Tony Leon
AT THE risk of incurring the displeasure of the proprietor of this newspaper, who — probably correctly — believes most readers are oversaturated with politics, permit an observation on next year’s elections. It starts with a nugget gleaned during a visit to London. There, a good friend who has spent decades representing the Conservative Party in parliament pointed out that the Tories took more than 20 years to recover from their brutal political assassination of their most successful modern leader, Margaret Thatcher.
The Conservative Party, which enjoys the distinction of being the most electorally successful political machine in the 20th-century democratic world, was in its own terms quite right to get rid of Thatcher in November 1990. Despite having won three general elections for her party and recast the mould of her country’s political economy, by then she had saddled her party with more negatives than positives. These included an unpopular policy (the poll tax), an increasingly divisive and imperious leadership style, which she viewed without end ("I plan to go on and on," she said), and a take-no-prisoners approach to any dissidents (whom she dismissed as "wets" or "spineless").
Her successor, John Major, stepped in and won an improbable fourth term of office for his party. But that was the high point of a premiership that pretty quickly unravelled.
But as the humorist Peter de Vries noted: "Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be." At last week’s Tory conference, Thatcher, in the form of a video titled Our Maggie, was portrayed in heroic terms to stir the party faithful. Something similar appears to be happening on the local election front, also centred on a vanquished leader.
In December 2007, when Thabo Mbeki was dumped as president of the African National Congress (ANC) and then, 10 months later, "recalled" as state president, an ANC colleague in Parliament made an interesting observation: "Just watch what happens. The genie is now out of the bottle and leading this party and country will never be the same again."
Reflecting back on those twin acts of ANC regicide, it is quite striking how a party, which hitherto had been almost blinded by leader-worship, could act so decisively when vital interests were threatened. Like Thatcher, not an obvious comparison, Mbeki had delivered two major electoral victories (greater than achieved by Nelson Mandela) and had stared down some powerful interests to impose a degree of market-friendliness in some, crucially though not all, areas of economic policy. His eloquent "I am an African" speech was perhaps the defining moment in the country’s constitutional process.
But there was even more red ink on the negative side of his leadership ledger than on the scorecard of the "Iron Lady". Imperious leadership, pumping up racial division and an African Renaissance that morphed into trysts with tyrants come to mind. His HIV/AIDS policy, which cost hundreds and thousands of unnecessary lives, originated from an intellect detached from reality. But merited or not, his removal from office remains a defining feature of our politics.
What a difference five years makes, though. The Mbeki years are now remembered through the lens of the troubled present far more warmly than could have been imagined. The ANC in Gauteng desires his presence in its campaign; and even though this has been slapped down from above, it is noteworthy that when he voted in the 2009 election, Mbeki famously refused to comment on-camera on whether he was even voting for the ANC. Doubtless the fact that his key lieutenants had formed a rival party, the Congress of the People, also on the ballot that day, weighed on his comment.
But the rediscovery of ANC leaders past is not confined to the ruling party. Hot on the heels of lashing the colours of the Democratic Alliance to the mast of Mandela, its Gauteng premier candidate, Mmusi Maimane, this week, more surprisingly, also joined the Mbeki revival club. Maimane is a highly personable and charismatic man whose origins are in the church. But he is also very politically ecumenical. His slogan "Believe in Gauteng" is borrowed, with local adaptation, from Mitt Romney, while his rhetoric is much inspired by Barack Obama. But this flexibility was extended last week when he announced that he had been an ANC-aligned Mbeki supporter and that his presidency instilled in him a sense of pride and that its high point was the policy of black economic empowerment.
Doubtless in order to score an immediate point against Mbeki’s successor, he chose to elide straight past the red ink in the past president’s ledger. But by casting politics in terms of a narrative — "the previous president was good, this one is bad" — suggests that the difference between the two largest parties in the country is a disagreement on the leadership choices of the ANC. Perhaps that was not the intention. But, then again, motive is less relevant than result.
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA