Mbeki, Zuma must go

2008-06-26 00:00

The cartoonist Brandon could not have drawn the nation’s collective despair more accurately when he likened South Africa to an aeroplane in flames, nose-diving out of control, ever downwards to the envitable deadly crash.

Although there is not a moment to spare, we can still avoid the coming crash, if we act quickly enough. Astonishingly President Thabo Mbeki and leading officials in his Pretoria bunker appear to deny South Africa’s current malaise. The xenophobic violence sweeping the country is but one deadly symptom of the leadership vacuum in the African National Congress (ANC), the government and the country. The ANC is now almost functioning like two separate parties: Mbeki in charge of the government and Jacob Zuma heading the party. But unless the leadership in the ANC is sorted out there is little prospect of fixing the country’s mountain of problems.

Because of the failure of the state, whether to protect citizens against crime, provide electricity, or to help families living in desperate poverty, the very legitimacy of the state is now being undermined. Just the mere fact that citizens are taking the law into their own hands on such a large scale as the horrific attacks against African immigrants, is an indication that the state is quickly losing the little authority it has. Even in the response to the xenophobic violence, it has been individuals, non-governmental organisations and civil groups who have quickly responded. The government has been paralysed. Mbeki’s authority has long been eroded.

The ANC’s hold on its members is also breaking fast. In provinces, branches and affiliate structures of the ANC ordinary differences have now turned into violent conflict. This is nothing but a national emergency, which calls for extraordinary steps. Parliament must be dissolved. Next year’s general election must be brought forward to give the government a new mandate. Mbeki must step down as president immediately. The ANC must call a special national conference to make a leadership decision rather than wait for provincial conferences to be completed by spring or for a list of conferences thereafter.

Because this is a national emergency, the ANC leadership must offer the job of South African president to ANC deputy-president Kgalema Motlanthe, who has, as from last week, become a member of Parliament (MP), making it a practical possibility. If not, the job must be given to ANC treasurer Mathews Phosa or ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) member Cyril Ramaphosa, both of whom were elected to the inner sanctum of the ANC at the party’s national conference last December.

If needs be, Zuma can remain ANC president. This will be an extraordinary step, but not an unprecedented one for the ANC. When the ANC was banished in the early sixties and its core leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, were sent to Robben Island prison by the apartheid government, Oliver Tambo was given the presidency of the ANC. All three leaders, Motlanthe, Phosa and Ramaphosa, present not only a clear generational change, but a clean break from the two factions currently paralysing the government and the ANC.

What cannot be disputed anymore is that South Africa has arrived at a “tipping point” in its post-1994 history. The black majority has now reached the point where they want the democratic dividend of democracy. The devastating cascading effects of high interest rates, rampant food and fuel inflation, combined with poor delivery of basic services and public corruption, is a ready catalyst for a volcanic eruption by those left out of the country’s prosperity, unless there is immediate action.

So far, Mbeki and the government have ignored these voices. If the government remains deaf, we must get ready for turbulent times. Only the other week Finance Minister Trevor Manuel stone-heartedly played down the urgency of high food prices. Manuel astonishingly said that the government is reluctant to provide emergency relief to families struggling desperately to make ends meet, because the recipients will spend it on alcohol.

In some circles, at home and abroad, many are now, understandingly, in sheer desperation, willing Zuma to take over as quickly as possible. Yet, this will not end the leadership vacuum in the ANC and the country, but merely prolong it. It is difficult to imagine a leader as morally compromised as Zuma effectively leading the renewal of democracy within the ANC and South Africa.

For the sake of the country Zuma and Mbeki must step aside for a less divisive leader. The ANC’s left also clearly has no broader, comprehensive and imaginative vision for the ANC or South Africa. The need for the rejuvenation of the country’s democracy, stagnant political culture and democratic institutions demands more imaginative ways, and new leaders, to deal with poverty, unemployment and inequality.

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