Game of political chess

2008-09-23 00:00

In the end President Thabo Mbeki’s demise was as cold, calculated and brutal as his reputation was for dispensing with his political enemies.

Although Mbeki has failed woefully on a whole range of policies, this is not what finally brought him down. It was also not the ideological differences with the disparate coalition of his political enemies rallied around his rival, ANC president Jacob Zuma, or Mbeki’s centrist economic instincts against the leftist views of the trade unionists and communists, or the virginity-testing supporters on the traditionalist right. No, in the end it was all personal. It was simply revenge.

Those who fell under Mbeki’s sword saw an opening for an eye-for-an-eye retribution. They wanted to humble Mbeki as they thought that he had humiliated them. But they also wanted to launch a pre-emptive strike, fearing that in his last days in office, he would unleash one last all-destroying missile to crush his enemies, in the vindictive style that has become associated with him. Some of his opponents particularly feared that he may yet set up a commission to investigate widespread corruption in the country’s controversial arms deal, or appeal Judge Chris Nicholson’s judgment and set in motion the recharging of Zuma, which would prevent him from taking the South African presidency.

In the ANC National Executive Committee meeting that sealed his fate on Friday, some of the president’s detractors even wanted to revoke his membership of the ANC. This would mean stripping Mbeki, a reclusive man who has dedicated most of his life to the ANC since he joined the party at the age of 14 and who views the ANC as his family and part of his identity, given that his identity has become interwoven with the ANC. All those “walking wounded” who have felt Mbeki’s wrath (the list of the people who feature prominently includes Zuma, Mathews Phosa, Cyril Ramaphosa, Simphiwe Nyanda, Gwede Mantashe, Blade Nzimande, Tony Yengeni, Tokyo Sexwale, Billy Masetlha and Mac Maharaj) have joined forces with those who only have personal enrichment in mind (the likes of ANC Youth League president Julius Malema) in the most brutal political assassination of a leader in the short democratic history of South Africa.

Leading the charge was Zuma, a man whose political career in exile was made by Mbeki, but who after he fell out with Mbeki was fired when his financial advisor was jailed for securing bribes on his behalf. Mbeki’s detractors have been actively looking for a moment to give Mbeki the knock-out blow. Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy to deal with Zimbabwe was for a long while seen as a reason to act.

But striking a co-operation agreement, however brittle, be-tween Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai, excluded that option. Then a week ago Nicholson inferred that Mbeki may have selectively used public institutions to sideline Zuma —something which Mbeki has fiercely denied. Yet, since Mbeki had at other times selectively used institutions to sideline critics, there was a ring of credibility to it. They pounced on it. No matter that Nicholson said he was not saying whether Zuma was guilty of the 16 charges of corruption, fraud and racketeering, and that the prosecution could charge Zuma again provided they do so according to the books. Yet, the dignified way in which Mbeki dealt with, first his loss of the ANC leadership last December, and then this humiliation, combined with the sheer brutality of the way he, described by Zuma as a “dead snake”, was pummelled while down, may actually lift his esteem in the eyes of even his fiercest critics.

Mbeki’s record was a schizophrenic one. He has lived in an intellectual bubble, aloof from attempts by ordinary South Africans trying to survive the high crime rate, broken families, disintegrating communities, unemployment and poverty, in the midst of pockets of dizzying wealth, consumption and complacency among the better off, both white and blacks. He preached democracy in Africa, but yet undermined democracy at home. He was an anti-corruption crusader, but undermined his own fight against corruption by shielding allies from investigation like the police commissioner, Jackie Selebi.

Although he expanded the black middle-class, bringing economic stability after a three decades of negative economic growth rates, he failed to provide income support, skills and jobs for the poor.

His prudent economic management gave South Africa three successive budget surpluses, and high economic growth rates, but he did not use this to provide income support for the poor. His government won a major victory in providing cheap drugs to poor HIV/Aids sufferers, but he refused to provide them as he started to question the cause of the disease. While he brought peace to many African conflicts, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, his persistence in continuing with a most derided “quiet diplomacy” towards Zimbabwe finally brought a costly, but rickety, peace there.

As a very cerebral leader, his biggest humiliation must also be seeing the man whose career he made, Zuma, who is, but for singing better, partying more, and being more humble, his inferior in all other ways, outplay him in the political chess game.

Polokwane was Mbeki’s Damascus moment, when his life changed. It turned him from a vindictive man into one more humble — but this came too late. It also exposed a rare vulnerability. His political enemies pounced. Zuma, as one person who knows the “chief” well, perhaps understood it best when he asked what the point was of beating a man already broken. Yet, Zuma could not stop his supporters’ stealthy move against Mbeki, in the process raising question over whether he, Zuma, will able to control them once he is formally in power.

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