Two cetres cannot hold

2012-12-20 00:00

ON September 4, 1939, the coalition government of Generals J.B.M. Hertzog and Jan Smuts, born of necessity in 1933 to overcome the political challenges of the Great Depression, came to naught over an issue the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of local politics had agreed to disagree on because it had seemed theoretical: participation in an international war on the side of the local colonial power, Great Britain.


Smuts trumped Hertzog by 80 votes to 67 in a parliamentary vote.

Fifty years on, then state president P.W. Botha suffered a stroke and decided to give up the leadership of the National Party (F.W. de Klerk was elected in his stead), but to stay on as head of state.

Botha and De Klerk coexisted for six months in their respective roles.

Eventually, though, Botha forced a showdown with De Klerk in a cabinet meeting on August 14, 1989. De Klerk emerged triumphant, and Botha resigned that same night.

Fast forward to Polokwane, 2007: different political system, similar political circumstance, comparable personality clash.

Mbeki is unseated by his deputy, Jacob Zuma, as party leader.

Mbeki stays on as head of state, and coexists with Zuma for nine months before being recalled following a court judgment confirming the suspicions of Zuma supporters that he had misused state agencies in his political war with his opponent.

That judgment was later overturned, but by then Mbeki was out.

Tuesday’s result in Mangaung creates a fourth, comparable example.

Zuma now has as his deputy in Cabinet a man who clearly doubts the head of state’s ability to lead. Why else would he oppose him as party leader?

Here’s what history teaches us.

• In the end, politics is about making choices, based on a mix of interest, preference, principle and priorities in ever-changing measure. Where differences of opinion strong enough to precipitate a leadership challenge happen to endure, the preference of the leader favoured by the majority in the party (in this case Zuma) will trump that of the opponent.

• Once a run-off has been had, a choice has been made and a margin of victory has been determined, the vanquished holds less power than anyone who has not faced the victor in a direct electoral challenge.

• Two centres of power might agree about working together in the prevailing conditions, but the best intentions can become the victim of changed circumstances. If tensions were rising anyway, changed circumstances may be seized upon to cause a crisis, and a showdown.

• All four examples from history started with everyone involved furiously denying that things may go awry. But in the end, the two centres of power would not exist were it not for fundamental differences. When a crisis forces these to the fore, the victor’s views hold.

• Obviously, if the protagonists get along on a personal level, it helps. Motlanthe has proven to be calm and focused. If anyone can manage to see the current situation through, it might be him. But he will be the first, as history shows.

Two centres of power hardly ever endure. Motlanthe does not need the money; he already draws no salary, finding his presidential pension sufficient. History shows he might do well to quit while he’s ahead.

• Jan-Jan Joubert is political editor at Beeld.

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