Danger we may face

2008-10-01 00:00

Epainette Mbeki is right. South Africa needs a new opposition political party to help put a brake on a restructured ANC leadership that is in danger of being driven by the reckless hotheads who de-manded the premature departure of the president for no good reason other than pure personal vengeance.

Many aspects of this second transition are encouraging, particularly that it took place peacefully and constitutionally with Thabo Mbeki stepping down gracefully. That was an indication of our stability and maturity, in sharp contrast to what is too often the norm in Africa. President Kgalema Motlanthe is also a reassuring figure, a man of dignity and in-tegrity who will undoubtedly focus on trying to stabilise the country during his all-too-brief interim presidency.

But there are worrying aspects, too, about the way this transition has been brought about and the role the hotheads who have driven it may play in the future, as Ma Mbeki darkly warns.

One might argue that it is only to be expected that a mother would express bitterness at the humiliating treatment meted out to her son, and certainly Ma Mbeki’s anger came across in a fascinating interview published by the Eastern Cape’s Weekend Post last Saturday. She said Thabo’s dismissal was "unjust".

But the Mbeki family have always been known for their iron control and lack of emotionalism. The late Govan Mbeki once told me quite matter of factly how he and Epainette had decided "to sever the ties of affection" with their children and send them away when they were small so that they would not pine when their parents were imprisoned, as they anticipated, but would grow up to be "strong comrades in the struggle".

So there was no sentimentality in what this most senior of all struggle veterans had to say. At 92 she is still sharp and outspoken and the main thrust of her anger was directed at what she considers the deterioration of a party that she has belonged to all her life.

Her reasoning was crisp.

Motlanthe was not a strong personality, she said, and would not be given the space or "the voice" to assert leadership. He would be pulled left and right by Luthuli House. As for Jacob Zuma, she was dismissive. "He has a weakness. He wants to please everybody." That, she inferred, would paralyse him.

The resultant weakness at the top would make the ANC’s National Executive Committee the driving force ruling the country, and it in turn would be driven by the ANC Youth League, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Even allowing for overstatement, there is enough logic in this analysis to raise concerns. Motlanthe in his inaugural address said that there would be no policy changes during his term of office. So what was the purpose of dismissing Mbeki seven months before his term would have expired anyway and he could have gone with dignity?

What was the purpose of giving the impression of a political crisis in the midst of the worst global economic crisis in 80 years — a risk vividly illustrated by the market panic over Trevor Manuel’s hastily reversed resignation an-nouncement?

What was the purpose of risking a split in the ruling party in the run-up to a general election? None that makes sense. It was personal, pure and simple. A lust for vengeance by the hotheads and the aggrieved that was heedless of the economic and political consequences. Heedless of the national interest.

This is the danger that we may face in the future, for this hotheadedness is part of a pattern that has manifested itself in recent times, led by the apprentice demagogues of the ANC Youth League, the vengeful anger of the SACP’s Blade Nzimande and, sadly, Cosatu’s normally principled and upright Zwelinzima Vavi who seems to have been swept away by his own tsunami.

It has become infectious. Other elements in our society have adopted the same kind of hooligan tactics that were employed at Polokwane. Recently in Pietermaritzburg, Zuma’s backyard, municipal workers went on an illegal strike, scattering garbage in the streets, damaging vehicles and other property, sabotaging electricity and water systems, invading offices and even threatening the mayor, a granddaughter of ANC icon Chief Albert Luthuli.

A political culture of being willing to disrupt and be disruptive seems to be taking hold.

This is why we need a strengthened opposition to put a brake on the threat such heedlessness may present in the future, and which the new ANC leadership seems unable to restrain.

In particular, the Constitution in needs to be safeguarded. These reckless elements have shown scant regard for that special document, the central pillar of our democracy, for the independence of the judiciary without which the Constitution would fall, or for other important state institutions such as the Human Rights Commission.

It is imperative that we go into next year’s election with a strong enough opposition at least to prevent the ANC from again holding a two-thirds majority in Parliament — the threshold needed to change the Constitution.

I hate to say this, but I no longer trust the ANC when even its secretary-general, the chief executive of our ruling party, feels able to label the Constitutional Court a "counter- revolutionary" institution — in other words a politically partisan collection of judges who "pounced" on the Judge John Hlope issue as part of a political campaign against Zuma.

It is not as though that out-rageous statement by Gwede Mantashe can be brushed aside as a careless utterance, for he repeated it later in a written article when he had plenty of time to weigh his words and their implications.

I don’t know whether those disaffected ANC members who are said to be considering a new breakaway party are likely to move before the election, but if and when they do it could be a major catalytic event in the evolution of our democracy.

I have long predicted that logically the ANC, which came into existence as a coalition of many different elements sharing the common objective of ending apartheid, would eventually break up after that mission was accomplished and the bonding glue began to weaken.

At the same time it has been evident that the rapid emergence of a burgeoning black middle-class has split the old ANC constituency in two, and that the diverging interests are pulling the old coalition apart.

I thought that the process would take 10 to 20 years given the ANC’s great reputation and, as Steven Friedman keeps reminding us, the propensity of voters to vote their identity rather than on issues. But it looks now as though the trauma of the Zuma-Mbeki power struggle may bring it about much sooner.

When it does occur, we shall have a more orthodox two-party system with the prospect of periodic regime change through the ballot box rather than through crude intra-party coups, orderly though this one has been.

Not least, we shall then have a system in which political competition will make our public representatives much more responsive to the needs of the people than to pleasing their party bosses, as happens now.

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

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