What the insider saw

2010-07-27 00:00

REVEREND Frank Chikane, the erstwhile director-general and adviser to former president Thabo Mbeki, is attracting a backlash from Luthuli House by publishing his recollections on the circumstances surrounding Mbeki’s recall, reflecting the infiltration of the governing party by individuals driven by guile and a hunger for personal power.

These are unknown people who leaked and fabricated stories to keep the idea of separate Zuma and Mbeki camps alive. They fed the media hype about tensions in the ANC.

It is baffling that ANC officials want to stop Chikane from publishing his recollections of developments, including the acts perpetrated by forces the ANC itself has complained about before.

Aptly named the Chikane Files, these recollections provide a rare government insider view of a shake-up of the core of our government from the recall of Mbeki in the spring of 2007 and the double transition that followed.

Chikane is an insider in two ways. On the one hand, he was a deployee of the governing party, highly regarded internally. He attended major ANC meetings and was in constant touch with its top leadership. On the other hand, he headed the presidency, the centre of government that was shaken by the events between 2007 and 2009. He had the responsibility of managing the transition between three presidents in a space of eight months. He had to console those hurt by the recall and help the new presidents take up their positions.

His perspective of these development is very interesting, especially his analysis of an unusual transition from which many profound lessons have to be drawn and also as part of the search for the truth in order to help the public interpret this experience fully. It is obviously a form of catharsis for Chikane who himself was clearly emotionally affected by the abrupt transition.

Each piece of the file that has appeared in a Gauteng daily newspaper over the past two weeks has attracted a lot of interest from political observers and now increasingly political actors themselves. Some are dismayed, many are simply intrigued. Some may even be excited.

The circumstances leading to the recall of Mbeki, what happened in the high office as Mbeki left and Kgalema Motlanthe took over, and how the highest office coped with a politicised transition process managed mainly by a transitional team at Luthuli House are all intriguing news bites for news people and analysts alike. It adds flesh to the skeletons of analy­ses some of us are trying to piece together in order to better understand what happened.

In the files, Chikane is thorough in recounting how these transitions played out in the high office, but is, at the same time, cautious not to cross the line between freedom of speech and violating secrecy rules binding senior government officials. He displays a deep loyalty to his party.

His recollection of verbal and nonverbal responses by politicians and officials is useful reference material for analyses of how public administration responds to political tremors.

The diary-like details will be a useful archive for future historians to whom we relegate the task of interpreting in detail what happened to South Africa’s political landscape between September 2007 and April 2009.

In episode two, Chikane describes how Judge Chris Nicholson’s judgment overshadowed Mbeki’s hard-fought success in getting Zimbabwean parties to a power-sharing agreement in mid- September.

The third part goes into detail about how Mbeki was informed about the recall, how he responded and the emotional shock among office staff.

The fourth part deals with Mbeki’s meetings with cabinet and security chiefs to inform them of his resignation, as well as his televised speech to the nation. Uncertainty about what needed to happen to urgent responsibilities of the president for that weekend, including a crucial United Nations meeting, also comes up.

The fifth episode describes developments like the swearing in of Motlanthe and the dignity and wisdom with which he held the high office, often coming up against power-hungry forces purporting to be from the ANC.

The sixth episode deals with the transition from Motlanthe to Jacob Zuma and how this was difficult to manage due to a poisoned political environment. It also recalls processes undertaken to help Mbeki hold final meetings with ministers.

All of this is an intriguing political story. It should encourage public debate about lessons drawn from what happened. There are lessons about democratic transition not found in textbooks and there are specific ones for the ANC’s internal politics, especially on divisive power brokers.

Chikane’s recollections are, of course, not the whole truth. They are about what this one man observed, saw and noticed. But being a perspective from within the political circles, it represents an important step towards uncovering the gospel truth.

The intention by the ANC national officials to have an audience with Chikane should not cause alarm because the ANC cannot try to muzzle a free citizen and man of the cloth. It would be an error of great proportion to do so.

Surely, the ANC has learnt from the recent saga on Zwelinzima Vavi’s disciplinary charges that such an action would project it as a party hellbent on protecting those who violated its values and norms to pursue crude political objectives, a tendency the party has decried since the Mafikeng Conference in 1997.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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