Death on the rocks or by 1 000 cuts

2008-10-11 00:00

It is somewhat akin to the spectator hysteria that develops as the undecided suicide perches on a ledge, girding courage to leap. The bloodthirsty crowd watching chants, “Jump! Jump!”

That is the position in which supporters of former president Thabo Mbeki find themselves. Anticipating an imminent African National Congress split, there is a public and media clamour goading the disaffected to take the plunge.

While some ANC leaders make soothing sounds that the “marriage is not over”, former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota petulantly insists that the “divorce papers have been served”.

Admittedly, there is pleasure at the prospect of some arrogant, now out-of-favour ANC politicians plummeting to oblivion. For it is political death that most likely faces those who dare break away at this moment.

Mbeki is unlikely to leave what has been his surrogate family since childhood. That he was led meekly to the slaughter suggests that he is reconciled to his fate.

This attitude might change if he has to spend retirement sitting on his hands. Like former president P. W. Botha he will find that nothing stirs the bile as does obscurity.

It is sensible of the ANC to keep him “deployed” as they like to put it, after “recalling” him like a motor car with a fatal manufacturing defect. Let Mbeki potter around South Africa’s back yard, engaged in the worthy but futile task of getting his mate Robert Mugabe to play ball with Morgan Tsvangirai.

Given that Mbeki, the man most sinned against, remains resolutely in the fold, how convincing then can a breakaway be, based on mere chagrin? The would-be rebels have been stingingly tagged by the ANC national executive as sore losers in a fair process.

There are as yet no policy differences on which the malcontents can stake out a departure on issues of principle. Caretaker President Kgalema Motlanthe has cannily promised no deviation from steady-as-she-goes Mbeki policies.

One can sympathise with those who have concerns over democracy, egging on a split. An ANC rump, no longer monolithic and facing as principal opponent a mostly black party, would certainly benefit democracy, especially by unlacing the racial straitjacket of the current voting patterns.

It would mean also that South Africa has curbed sooner than anywhere else in Africa, the fetid electoral monopoly enjoyed by the liberation party. This would obviously benefit good governance and help control corruption.

But it is the rare statesman who makes decisions based on national interest. Politicians are motivated by expediency, caring most about preserving their skins and ensuring unfettered access for their snouts.

In any case, however emotionally gratifying it might be to leave the party while seething with indignation, a premature break would be self-defeating.

Unless they fancy their chances of winning half of the current ANC’s vote in the next election — and the ignominy of having to form an alliance with the Democratic Alliance — the rebels would be banished from power for a long time, left snuffling for leftovers instead of truffles.

What complicates the dilemma of the wannabe, shouldwebe rebels is the new hierarchy’s obvious ambivalence to Mbeki loyalists. It alternates between reconciliatory overtures from the party elders and abusive threats of exclusion from the ANC Youth League and its associates.

There is also the likelihood that the dissidents will not make the ANC electoral lists. This means they don’t have the luxury of time within the halls of power to manoeuvre to regain the ascendancy.

Perhaps the real choice facing the Mbeki faction is not between suicide and survival. Rather it is whether to risk a quick death on the electoral rocks or to remain party members, to die slowly by 1 000 cuts.

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