A call for calm

2008-01-09 00:00

It is time the leaders of the warring camps in the ANC rose above their internecine squabbles and started placing the interests of the country above their personal and factional ambitions.

They need to get together — and by that I mean President Thabo Mbeki as head of government and Jacob Zuma as head of the ANC — to work out a modus vivendi of how they are going to function together through the coming year, which is going to be the most turbulent, uncertain and dangerous time in the life of our new democracy.

For the new National Executive Committee and the New National Working Committee to meet, as they are doing this week and next, is not enough, as those bodies represent only one side of the conflict — the party.

So Mbeki and Zuma must meet. Soon. For emotions are overflowing and uncertainty is mounting. Wild voices in the Zuma camp are saying that the judicial system is being manipulated, our courts can’t be trusted and that if Zuma is indeed brought to court in August to face trial as charged “there will be blood on the floor”.

This is crazy, irresponsible stuff, and unless it is brought under control swiftly, then as we move deeper into the year and the actual trial begins one can picture overheated mobs gathering outside the courtroom and that inciting prediction turning into reality.

To his credit, Zuma has made a public call for calm and warned against turning South Africa into another Kenya. But he needs to go beyond that and call his followers to order on their other wild accusations as well.

As for Mbeki, he has gone into his shell except for a few muttered self-justifications on TV and a trip into central Africa to attend to other people’s problems instead of those on his own doorstep.

All this bespeaks a failure of political leadership at a time of national crisis. It has been a long time coming and anyone who has been following events with any degree of diligence has been able to foresee its inevitable arrival. It was obvious that Zuma was heading for victory at the ANC national conference in Polokwane, and it was equally obvious that he was again going to be charged with corruption either before or soon after that conference. Put those two factors together and you could come up with only one conclusion — crisis. It was obvious that the ANC was going to find itself heading for a national election with a candidate who was heading for a courtroom dock, and possibly prison thereafter. Or, worse still, massive political pressure would be brought to bear on the judicial process to drop the charges, in which case South Africa would find itself being led by a president who had avoided clearing his name of serious criminal charges.

Zuma has his role to play, too. He must rein in his hot-headed supporters and, together with Mbeki, recognise the economic and constitutional dangers inherent in the present situation.

Investors hate uncertainty, and South Africa is filled with that right now. The prospect of the country heading towards an election with the two camps of its dominant party at war with each other could prompt a flight of investment capital and cause the economic gains of our first 13 years of democracy to start to unravel.

Equally disturbing are the public attacks on our democratic institutions, with members of Cosatu and the ANC Youth League claiming that the charging of Zuma is “politically motivated,” that Mbeki is behind the manipulation and that Zuma will not get a fair trial.

They offer no hard evidence to substantiate any of these claims, which are pure supposition, but they are asserting them so frequently that large sectors of the population are bound to accept them as truth. This can only do grave damage to the judiciary, the judicial system as a whole and ultimately the integrity of the constitution.

It is up to Zuma to stop this reckless impugning of our courts and to acknowledge that it is right and proper for him to have his day in court to clear his name. The charges against him are now a matter of public record. They are multiple and serious. There is obviously a prima facie case for him to answer. He must do so. He cannot become president of South Africa without that.

As for who should be the ANC’s candidate for the 2009 election, Zuma should agree to let his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, take that on since his own trial will clearly not be over before election day. Depending on the outcome of the trial, Motlanthe could then either step down in favour of Zuma or remain as president.

• Allister Sparks, a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail, is a veteran South African journalist and political commentator.

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