Who should lead?

2007-11-16 00:00

The big December African National Congress Conference is approaching, and everyone is wondering who will be elected to lead the organisation. The conference will deal with many other issues, but the question of leadership is the one that has been stressed (perhaps over-stressed) in the media, and it has certainly caught the popular imagination.

A number of commentators and columnists have put forward their views on the matter of “succession”, as it is being called. Here I offer mine. I must stress that I am not a person of any influence within the ANC.

As far as one can judge at this stage, there are likely to be four strong candidates: Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma, Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa. The first two are in their mid-sixties; the second two are in their mid-fifties. Are the ages of the candidates significant? Not necessarily: some people have been fine leaders in their early forties, while others have led strongly in their seventies. But, all other things being equal, a democratic political party with a wide range of talent would usually put forward people in their fifties rather than in their sixties. There are several reasons for this. A younger person projects a fresher, more vigorous image, is apt to be less weighed down by the past, and can perhaps look further into the future. One remembers too the gloomy old men who used to run the USSR; one also remembers the aged Hastings Banda of Malawi, and Robert Mugabe. Pallo Jordan, the Minister of Arts and Culture, tentatively made the further specific suggestion that perhaps those prominent for so long in the liberation movement in exile should now consider giving way to those of the next generation.

Let me say a little about each of the four candidates. Mbeki has in some respects been extremely distinguished. He has stabilised the economy and turned South Africa into one of the most viable and progressive of the middle-income developing nations. He has also taken an important and imaginative lead in African affairs, and made a considerable impact on the international scene, pleading for the African cause and for global political and economic justice. But, against all this, he has had significant areas of failure: his somewhat secretive and authoritarian style has alienated many ANC members; his weird untenable position on HIV/Aids has puzzled and distressed the world; he has recently made some strange decisions; and, although he has often been admirably self-critical, his actual record on poverty, unemployment, crime and the Zimbabwe situation has been disappointing. Although he still evokes respect from many people, my sense is that very many feel that he has been around long enough.

Zuma had a great deal going for him. He was a struggle hero, a very popular politician, a self-made man, who could communicate easily with people of every kind. And he had a flair for reconciliation: it was he more than anyone else who was responsible for the relative peace that prevails now between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party in KwaZulu-Natal. But things seem to have gone wrong. Although nothing has been proved conclusively, it is difficult not to believe that he mismanaged his private finances, and thus fell under the spell of the dubious Schabir Shaik. A trial for corruption probably looms. Then he was accused of rape. He was acquitted, but details of his conduct revealed in the trial hardly bolster his image as a mature and responsible person. He has received a great deal of vociferous public support, but his followers have sometimes misbehaved and Zuma has often not corrected them. In fact, with his emphasis upon an out-of-date freedom song rather than upon any specific policies, he has perhaps exhibited populism at its most disturbing.

There remain Sexwale and Ramaphosa, and it must be obvious by now that my vote, if I had one, would go to one of them. They are in some respects fairly similar. They are both lively, articulate, experienced and attractive people, with good track records within the ANC. They were both deployed by the ANC to go into business - at a time when it seemed clear that some Africans needed to gain some economic muscle - and both have been very successful in their BEE activities. They are now rich. Clearly the poor of the ANC - a fairly large proportion of their overall numbers - will be doubtful about these two tycoons: having tasted the fruits of capitalism, will they retain any of their original concern about poverty? Would they as leaders not simply promote the new middle class and leave the poor to look after themselves? We know too little about either of them to be able to answer these questions decisively. But my guess is that, as thoughtful and alert people, they would be likely to be well aware both of people's anxieties and of the need to devise policies that accommodate these anxieties.

It is true that neither of them would be likely to favour a fairly sharp swing to the left of the kind advocated, in not very clear terms, by the South African Communist Party and Cosatu. But any intelligent person taking up the reins of leadership in South Africa must know that poverty and unemployment represent the chief challenge in the immediate future.

The careers of Sexwale and Ramaphosa have not been identical. Both had humble beginnings, and were reared in the Black Consciousness Movement. Sexwale joined the ANC armed wing, was captured, and spent 13 years on Robben Island. After 1994 he became the premier of Gauteng. Ramaphosa led the National Union of Mineworkers, became the secretary general of the ANC, and was then one of the chief negotiators at Codesa. He later chaired the Constitutional Assembly.

Both are very strong candidates for leadership. It is difficult to choose between them. In the end, partly but not only because Sexwale has apparently dispensed a few gratuitous financial favours, I would prefer Ramaphosa.

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