Mbeki & Co wrote the Zuma script

There is now a moral and po­lit­i­cal obli­ga­tion on the Zuma power elite to re­call the man they put into power

CityPress - - Voices - Mark Ge­visser voices@city­press.co.za

s his 2007 Polok­wane show­down with Ja­cob Zuma loomed, Thabo Mbeki gave me one last in­ter­view be­fore the pub­li­ca­tion of my bi­og­ra­phy on the states­man, The Dream De­ferred. When I asked the then pres­i­dent to ex­plain why he had de­cided to seek a third term as pres­i­dent of the ANC, he gave me a lengthy as­sess­ment of his ad­ver­sary.

The con­ver­sa­tion was off the record. Nev­er­the­less, I felt able to write in my book that Mbeki “was deeply dis­tressed by the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing suc­ceeded by Zuma” be­cause “he be­lieved his deputy’s play for the pres­i­dency to be part of a strat­egy to avoid pros­e­cu­tion”. More than that, Mbeki “wor­ried that Zuma and his back­ers had no re­spect for the rule of law, and would be un­ac­count­able to the con­sti­tu­tional dis­pen­sa­tion the ANC had put into place”.

What seemed to trou­ble Mbeki most was how ac­com­plished Zuma was as a po­lit­i­cal strate­gist in re­la­tion to how weak he was morally and in­tel­lec­tu­ally. Mbeki had other wor­ries too: of “a resur­gence of eth­nic pol­i­tics”, I wrote, and of a left­ist pop­ulism that “would undo all the metic­u­lous stitch­ing of South Africa into the global econ­omy that [he] had un­der­taken over 15 years”.

Th­ese words have haunted me over the past week as I – like so many South Africans – have reck­oned with the wreck­ing ball that is Zuma. I have been struck by the fact that Mbeki’s fear of a left­ist resur­gence was mis­placed. The way even the left re­sponded to Nh­lanhla Nene’s sack­ing re­minds us that Zu­man­ism is not about ide­ol­ogy at all. The “un­stitch­ing” Mbeki feared has come about, rather, through caprice, klep­toc­racy and self-in­ter­est.

Let us give Mbeki the ben­e­fit of the doubt, then. Maybe he did go to bat­tle at Polok­wane, at least in part, be­cause he wanted to stave off the kind of col­lapse we have wit­nessed un­der his suc­ces­sor. The con­ven­tional wis­dom is that Mbeki had be­come se­duced by power and alien­ated within it. But what­ever psy­chopo­lit­i­cal im­pulses drove Mbeki, we must re­mem­ber that he had made the de­ci­sion, the year pre­vi­ously, to fire a man who had been his deputy pres­i­dent and one of his clos­est com­rades. Watch­ing Zuma across the hall in the Union Build­ings, he had seen not only his deputy’s moral dark­ness, but his vac­u­ous­ness too.

Mbeki is not driven by ma­te­rial things. The rea­son he suf­fered af­ter his de­feat was not only be­cause of his sum­mary ejec­tion from what was, af­ter all, his fam­ily. It was also be­cause he was ob­sessed with legacy. And he saw the as­cen­sion of Zuma as a slight on this. As well he should, given that he is re­spon­si­ble for hav­ing be­queathed us Zuma in the first place.

The first way he did this was by pro­mot­ing Zuma to be his deputy. This came, in part, from the long as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween the two men. It also came, I be­lieve, from his mis­cal­cu­la­tion that the Nkandla “moe­goe” would not be a threat. This was one of Mbeki’s great­est fail­ings: his in­cli­na­tion to­wards peo­ple he be­lieved were eas­ily ma­nip­u­la­ble.

But Mbeki should not shoul­der the blame alone for the anoint­ment of his deputy. Zuma him­self once rather huffily re­minded me that he was in the se­nior lead­er­ship of the ANC long be­fore Mbeki – he was elected deputy sec­re­tary-gen­eral in 1991, while Mbeki only made the “top six” three years later, in 1994. Zuma has al­ways had pow­er­ful back­ers. Th­ese in­cluded Nel­son Man­dela.

The sec­ond way Mbeki be­queathed us Zuma is more egre­gious. De­spite Mbeki’s high-mind­ed­ness, and de­spite the fact that there is no ev­i­dence of his hav­ing been ma­te­ri­ally cor­rupt, he wrote the script for how to com­man­deer state power to fight po­lit­i­cal bat­tles. We know this, most of all, from the way he trained the state’s guns on Zuma through Leonard McCarthy and oth­ers in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. Mbeki might have be­lieved this was for the greater good, but if so, this was an­other fa­tal mis­cal­cu­la­tion. His ac­tions not only gave his op­po­nents ev­i­dence of his im­pe­rial de­signs, but set the stage for the fur­ther degra­da­tion of the state.

Mbeki claimed that he stood against Zuma at Polok­wane be­cause no one else could. I be­lieve this as­sess­ment to be ac­cu­rate. At that point, Cyril Ramaphosa had not yet re­claimed his in­sider cap­i­tal, and Tokyo Sexwale was al­ways go­ing to be an out­lier. Still, this is no ex­cuse for the ex-pres­i­dent’s high-hand­ed­ness and short-sight­ed­ness. Mbeki must ac­cept sig­nif­i­cant re­spon­si­bil­ity for the dis­as­ter of the Zuma pres­i­dency – in the way he pro­moted Zuma, first by sup­port­ing him and then by op­pos­ing him, and in the way he alien­ated many in the party.

Th­ese peo­ple be­came that much-vaunted “coali­tion of the wounded” against Mbeki. Only two have pub­licly re­pented: Zwelinz­ima Vavi and Julius Malema. And in both cases, this is be­cause they have been ejected from the ANC and its tri­par­tite al­liance.

The rest re­main part of the Zuma power elite, and bear re­spon­si­bil­ity for its dis­as­ters, even if they claim to be work­ing hard to hold things to­gether. Jeff Radebe and Lindiwe Sisulu over­saw the le­gal re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of Zuma and put the Mbeki “spy tapes” il­le­gally into the pub­lic do­main. Gwede Man­tashe, Jesse Duarte and Baleka Mbete were on Zuma’s slate and were fer­vent lieu­tenants. Blade Nz­i­mande and Sdumo Dlamini worked the left for Zuma, and a whole host of other home­boys helped es­tab­lish KwaZulu-Natal as his per­sonal fief­dom.

Both of the con­tenders to re­place Zuma are also af­fected by their as­so­ci­a­tion with him: Ramaphosa by help­ing bring him to power and serv­ing be­neath him, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma through blood ties.

After Polok­wane, I spoke to many of the peo­ple above, and in most I de­tected a shifty two-step: they sang the praises of their new “chief”, even while sig­nalling that they un­der­stood his short­com­ings and were sup­port­ing him pri­mar­ily as a ve­hi­cle to dis­patch the loathed Mbeki. “We’ll sort things out af­ter­wards,” one of the above-men­tioned peo­ple as­sured me.

Their strat­egy has failed, mis­er­ably, and they must be held to ac­count for this. It is their moral and po­lit­i­cal obli­ga­tion, now, to re­call the man they put into power, as they once did Mbeki.

Ge­visser is an au­thor

PHOTO: JOHNNY ON­VERWACHT

POWER AND POL­I­TICS Then ANC pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki (left) and his deputy pres­i­dent, Ja­cob Zuma, at the party’s 52nd na­tional con­fer­ence at the Univer­sity of Lim­popo in Polok­wane in De­cem­ber 2007

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