South Africa’s second democratic presidency has been brought to an early end after a bitter leadership battle in the ruling African National Congress. Thabo Mbeki was forced to resign by the ANC after a High Court ruling on September 12 inferred that he was behind a conspiracy to remove the party’s current leader, Jacob Zuma, as the country’s next president.
The judge agreed with Zuma’s argument that he had not been afforded his right to representation after a statement by the director of public prosecutions in 2003 that there was prima facie evidence of corruption against him, and before formal charges were filed in December 2007.
The deputy president, eleven cabinet ministers, three deputy ministers and a provincial premier followed suit, tendering their resignations to make way for the interim presidency of Kgalema Motlanthe.
Not to submit to party discipline without protest, the former defence minister and the outgoing premier of Gauteng accompanied their resignations while castigating Mbeki’s ouster. This acrimony has encouraged rumours of an imminent split in the party despite denials that the separation of Mbeki and Zuma loyalists is leading to a full divorce. The ANC is meanwhile, scrambling to contain breakouts in several provincial structures including the Western Cape where “ANC dissidents” have met to plan the restoration of the party’s “dignity”.
The contradictory leadership styles of the two men amplified their rivalry. The ANC could accommodate them nontheless, as a nationalist party in a country that offers little other alternative.
On one side stood Mbeki, who centralised power in the presidency in his nine years in office. Perceptions of his arrogance, for having surrounding himself with yes-men and blinding himself to local realities, were only reinforced by his procedural denialism, e.g. the social crises of unemployment, HIV/AIDS, crime and xenophobia. In the end, Zuma had to do little more than appear as just another aggrieved party member in order to embody the alternative and recruit ready allies.
Aside from the power struggles within the party, Mbeki was not defending a popular record either. The neo-liberal development policies adopted by his administration have exacerbated the socio-economic inequalities that characterised apartheid. One million jobs were lost and cuts in social spending have left public services in a state of disarray while capital has benefited from the government’s inducements for investment.
Zuma has been able to galvanise these mounting social pressures without having to articulate an alternative viewpoint. To the contrary, he has assured investors that the country’s economic policies will not change under his leadership. He may be ascending to the throne with a coterie of unionists and communists but the terms of their support for him were never as ideological as they were self-serving. Mbeki has his own leftists behind him, whose time serving the national project has ended.
Mbeki is not going out to pasture without a fight. He is appealing the High Court judgement on the basis that it cost him his job without having taken his testimony. Since his appeal leapfrogs the regular appeals process and is addressed to the Constitutional Court, the former president is leaving prosecutors, who are also appealing the judgement, in a complicated knot of power and litigation. They will be arguing that the judge had overreached the terms of what Zuma’s application was asking of the court by finding “baleful political interference” in the judiciary- and by calling for an inquiry into a possibly dodgy Zuma-backed arms deal.
This elephant in the room consisits of $9 billion worth of military hardware acquisitions that have already implicated Zuma’s financial advisor and other ANC leaders, who are accused of having received kickbacks from defence contractors. The ANC has resisted attempts to have the deal in question investigated and has repeatedly denied that there were any irregularities whatsoever. The possibility of wide-scale corruption narrows to probability given the numerous indications that the party’s executive have been trying to prevent the truth from coming out.
The parliamentary committee tasked with overseeing public accounts was excoriated by the presidency for recommending an investigation in 2001. When a multi-agency probe was finally set up, its report was released only after Mbeki and his ministers had reviewed and edited it. South African authorities have also impeded English and German investigations into fraud and bribery by arms manufacturers.
With national elections scheduled for next year, Mbeki cannot hope that his appeal will restore him to the presidency. Rather, his interest lays in preserving a legacy of good governance. Good governance is one of the conditions his New Partnership for Africa’s Development holds as central to the economic development of the continent. By resigning in good democratic order, Mbeki will at least have affirmed good South African governance. Alternatively, if the author of Nepad is to be exposed as a hypocrite he will have confirmed Western tropes about African states being inherently corruptible.
Nicolas Dieltiens is a South Africa based freelance journalist.