Monday, September 29, 2008

SA: Where to from here?

In a moment of over-excitement last week - when Kgalema Motlanthe was elected president of South Africa by the National Assembly and half-a-dozen cabinet ministers who had offered to resign indicated they would return to their desks if invited - Gwede Mantashe (ANC secretary general) exclaimed, "There is no crisis - this transition is managed perfectly."

No, Mr Mantashe. The transition is still in its early stages.

It will reach its culmination only in seven months when the next five-yearly general elections are held (provisionally May 6) and the NA meets again to take another vote on the presidency. The presidential contest then can go either way, and the price can be interim instability. It is no use pretending this price will not have to be paid. The closer the elections approach, the more surprises will appear. It's fasten-seat-belts time.

The assumption is that Jacob Zuma, waiting in the wings as ANC president, will be voted into the presidency, but this is not the time for assumptions. Everyone assumed that Baleka Mbete, NA Speaker, or some other "neutral" personality, would be voted in to bridge the seven month gap. Instead, Motlanthe (Deputy President of the Zuma-led ANC) surfaced and was elected by 269 of the 368 MPs who cast votes (in the 400-member NA).

The media still refer to him as an "interim" or "caretaker" president, but this is an assumption. Motlanthe is South Africa's president, and who knows what the national mood will be like by May?

Perhaps one assumption can be allowed: if Zuma is not elected president, and to his fury (or with his concurrence) Motlanthe continues as president, the political scene could become quite lively. Instead of the Zuma camp fighting the Mbeki camp, the Zuma-ites could ratchet up their own infighting. The ANC Youth League (the "kingmakers") and others would go ballistic.

Already, there is no love lost between them and Motlanthe - he rebuked the ANCYL both for its loutish behaviour at a recent conference and its attacks on the judiciary. With their adrenalin pumping, the League told Motlanthe (August 30) not to behave as if Zuma "is no more"; following which some commentators suggested that Motlanthe could be "marginalised", whereas he has been presidentialised.

In The Times, Justice Malala writes about "anger" at the "perceived descent of the ANC into a strident mob as typified by ANC Youth League president Julius Malema." Mbeki's brother, Moeletsi, who usually disagrees with Thabo politically, says the public beheading of Thabo (his "recall" by the ANC from the presidency) could lead to a "civil war", which is over the top.

But there is too much gossip of preparations for battle for some of it not to be accurate. Malala claims that "Murmurings (of a new opposition) party have been heard before...But now it is being openly talked about, with defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota and his deputy, Muleki George, linked to such a move." (Lekota was ANC national chairman under Mbeki).

Malala expects the infighting to be confined to the ANC. "A new party is possible, but it will be tough for it to entrench itself." However, a "shock" Sunday Times survey yesterday (of 1,500 South Africans on landline telephones - so not really representative) showed: 27 percent would vote for the (Zuma) ANC and 26 percent for the opposition Democratic Alliance (with 27 percent undecided); voters will turn out en masse for next year's elections (dispelling talk that voters are suffering from political fatigue); among urban ANC voters Mbeki is still more popular than Zuma, but Motlanthe is more popular than either of them; and only 7 percent of whites will vote for the ANC and 4 percent of blacks for the DA.

As the Afrikaans expression goes, bou nou ‘n nasie!

Motlanthe's election is intriguing. Reports say "hard-liners" are angry. If so, who are the "soft-liners" who manoeuvred Motlanthe into the election? Where does power really lie in that elusive structure called the (Zuma) ANC? The question gnaws, but it could point the way to hope for South Africa.

Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya believes "Zuma and the leadership of the ANC are not in control of their support base. An uncouth youth [the ANCYL's Malema?] is allowed to scream at all and sundry and the adults in the party are afraid to call him to order."

Usually, Makhanya and Malala are well served by their crystal balls, but possibly more background planning is taking place in the ANC leadership than is expedient for the leadership to reveal at the moment (somewhere among the 86 members of the new National Executive Committee?). Just as Motlanthe slipped suddenly into place, so could other pieces of the jigsaw puzzle when their time comes.

Another "soft-liner" is Matthews Phosa, a former premier of Mpumalanga province and now a member of the ANC's top six leaders under Zuma. In 2001, he was falsely accused by Mbeki's Security minister of plotting with two politicians-turned-businessmen, Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale, to oust him.

Phosa says (12/9/2008) the ANC does not necessarily share the views of Cosatu and the SACP. There will be no changes in South Africa's macro-economic policies - the landmine waiting at the end of the presidential contest.

The central point is that whatever side South Africans are on, the breaking of the log jam at Polokwane, and ensuing developments, are perceived now as opening opportunities - for individuals and parties - not imagined before. Hopefully, there will be something in it for everyone. It looks as if new chips will have to be inserted into all our crystal balls.

Some analysts see the unfolding presidential struggle in South Africa as one coup d'etat after another: first, the ANC conference at Polokwane, Limpopo province, in mid-December, when the Jacob Zuma tsunami swept Thabo Mbeki from office.

The second, the next coup was hatched on September 19 on the steps of the Pietermaritzburg High Court when Judge Chris Nicholson ruled that the corruption trial against Jacob Zuma was invalid. This was, as Makhanya put it, a constitutional coup d'├ętat - "the type that does not need generals in uniform and interrupted broadcasts on state radio. On the steps of that court it was decided that Thabo Mbeki, the president of the republic, was to be toppled.

Barney Pityana, vice chancellor of Pretoria University, also describes the public beheading of Mbeki [his "recall" by the ANC] as "a coup d'etat in all but name." Others will find additional major or mini coups in the record of this rather extraordinary presidential duel.

So, as the general elections approach (provisionally May 6), the ANC continues bravely to insist that as a party it will not break up, even if it has ousted Mbeki and may proceed to oust many of his nominees as well (the latter softly, softly).

Two questions then emerge. One is if there is a breakup, will it be ring-fenced so as to destabilise only politics, or will it go further and take the country into economic decline?. The other equally interesting question is whether the break-up may lead to a general airing of issues and create space for wiser heads in the ANC to put the party on a sounder course.

Simultaneously, the 17 minority groups in parliament may ask themselves for how long they can go it alone; whether the time has come to form pacts with other parties and create a mainstream to which black voters increasingly might be attracted - once the paralysing ethnic grip finally loses its raison d'etre?

Democratic Alliance leader, Helen Zille, sees current events as "the beginning of a radical realignment of South African politics." Her own party has 47 seats which, added to the ANC's 297, leaves just 56 seats to be divided among the other 16 parties (an average of a trivial 3.5 seats per party). A few individuals benefit from this lone ranger approach; politically, it is usually meaningless.

Every week there is fresh testimony that animosities are running high in internal ANC politics. Just recently, two ANC conferences were held in the Western Cape, each attended by about 500 delegates, one supporting Jacob Zuma and other Thabo Mbeki.

The Western Cape has long been the scene of protracted infighting, but if the Mbeki-ites plan to fight back, this Western Cape model could repeat itself all over the country, marked by rough skirmishes.

Another source of anger will be if Mbeki appointees are unceremoniously dumped, regardless of their record of demonstrable skills or that they have been custodians of that invaluable public service possession, a department's institutional memory.

Others may suspect that if they are retained it will be only for a while - until they are given redundancy packages that don't match the often generous packages handed out by Mbeki to white officials when he was ethnically cleansing the public service.

Wisely, the ANC is said to be inviting more and more skilled whites to return to their old desks; the newly expunged may not see it in quite such a supportive way.

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