Five years on: politics could have been so very different
Date Released: Mon, 9 September 2013 10:06 +0200
Five years ago, in September 2008, then president Thabo Mbeki was removed from office by the African National Congress (ANC). The event shook the foundations of the new South African order, raising questions about the constitution and altering the country’s destiny.
The events unfolded day by day like a live political soap opera playing continuously on all channels and in print. Why was Mbeki removed just nine months before he was due to finish his second term in office? He had tried and failed to secure a third term as ANC president at the party’s Polokwane conference in December 2007. He had made it clear he would respect the law and not seek a third term as president of the country. The party decided he should finish his second term. Mbeki would return to the Union Buildings for an uncomfortable nine months during which his adversary in Luthuli House, Jacob Zuma, was calling the shots.
Mbeki’s removal from office had nothing to do with his performance as president and everything to do with factionalism in the ANC. The major political grievances with Mbeki had receded. His failure to act against AIDS had been ameliorated by his withdrawal from public debate and the implementation of an extensive government programme.
His alienation of the left, which had begun when he banged his fist on the table and said "Call me a Thatcherite!" as he forced through the relatively conservative Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) macroeconomic strategy, with its vision of private-sector-led growth and fiscal austerity, had faded. Gear had saved the country’s bacon during the Asian financial crisis of 1997, when questions about the fidelity of emerging market finances wrought havoc and it had laid a platform for 10 years of steady growth from 1998 to 2008. In the three years leading up to 2008, annual growth had exceeded 5%.
Gear was, by 2008, background noise. In the foreground, a chorus of Mbeki ministers, trade unionists and South African Communist Party hangers-on, were singing a new song of state-led growth. The Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (Asgi-SA) was a different animal from Gear. It placed the state at the centre of development powered by a dramatic rise in infrastructure spending and social grants.
So what happened in 2008 to precipitate the decision by the ANC to boot Mbeki out? The answer lies in one of the most dramatic interventions by a court in political affairs in the new dispensation. Zuma still had the sword of Damocles hanging over him. Barely a week after he was elected ANC president in Polokwane, on December 28 2007, he had been charged anew for corruption involving the arms deal. The 87-page indictment included 18 main counts of racketeering, corruption, money laundering, tax evasion and fraud. Zuma sought to have the decision to prosecute him put aside. If he was to make a run for the presidency in the election of 2009, just 16 months away, he knew he had to have the charges quashed.
The legal exchanges dragged on through autumn and winter. Finally, in the spring of 2008, Zuma obtained relief. In one of the poorest judgments of the new SA, Judge Chris Nicholson set aside the decision to indict Zuma. It was a sweeping ruling made with little acknowledgment of the boundaries between the judiciary and political affairs.
Nicholson sniffed at Mbeki’s decision to stand for a third term as leader of the ANC, saying: "At its lowest then the decision to stand as party leader was controversial and not in accordance with the Westminster system we espouse in this country. The applicant claims his woes are attributable to his decision to accept nomination of others and stand for the position of head of the party, as a rival to the incumbent president. Clearly the stakes were high and the competition fierce." The Westminster system? Was it possible that a learned judge had confused leadership of a political party with leadership of the state? Leaving this aside, it is simply wrong to say that SA "espouses" the Westminster system. We have proportional representation, they have constituencies. We have a president, they have a prime minister. We have a constitution, they do not.
Nicholson went into some detail to explain why he believed the prosecution of Zuma was politically designed. Then came the bombshell judgment: "It is declared that the decision taken by the National Prosecuting Authority during or about 28 December 2007 to prosecute the applicant … is invalid and is set aside." Although Nicholson time and again made it plain that his ruling had nothing to do with "the guilt or otherwise" of Zuma, his ruling was greeted as a complete and total political victory for the Zuma camp. They had, in their eyes, been proved right in their view that the decision to prosecute Zuma was a political act that had no bearing on the facts.
But even an amateur reading of the judgment showed it was riddled with errors and was likely to be overturned on appeal. It had departed from the question of whether Zuma had a case to answer, political interference or not. Perhaps with this in mind, Zuma decided there and then to remove Mbeki from office. By the time Judge Louis Harms of the Supreme Court of Appeal overturned Nicholson’s judgment in scathing terms in January 2009, Mbeki was long gone.
You would have to ask yourself how different things might have been had Nicholson made the right ruling in the first place. In all probability, the charges against Zuma would have gone ahead. By the 2009 election, the ANC would have had to have asked itself whether it could have a presidential candidate who was an accused in the dock.
Frank Chikane has written the only on-the-record account by an insider of Mbeki’s final days in office. In Eight Days in September, which must be read with glasses that can decode its rose-tinted ink, Chikane described Mbeki after he received news that he was to be axed. "He looked like a soldier who was ready to die, if he had to, for the sake of the country." Communication between Mbeki and the ANC leadership was painfully to the point. Mbeki’s people asked if he might be allowed to continue with his appointments, including those abroad. The message came back "that the president could not continue with any of his responsibilities, particularly the international commitments", Chikane recalls. This was a body blow to Mbeki, who relished his role on the international stage. "This act," Chikane noted, "brought us closer to the definition of a coup d’état."
"The atmosphere at (the presidential residence in Pretoria) — was like that of an African home where death has struck, with people coming and going, people wandering about, people weeping," he wrote. And, later on, he allowed himself to go a little over the top: "With hindsight, those who sat in that lounge reminiscing about the past 24 hours were like the disciplines of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion." Perhaps realising that he was pushing the envelope, Chikane immediately qualified this with: "Of course Mbeki is not Jesus Christ, but that gathering … just after the president announced his resignation brought these thoughts about his disciples to me. I was able to understand better what they went through."
Written by: Ray Hartley
Picture credit: www.businessday.co.za
• Hartley is editor at large. This article was published on Business Day.