South Africa

LGE 2016: Payback time from the ANC’s old leaders

By Stephen Grootes 2 August 2016

It is an old maxim in politics that one should keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. Less known is its counterpart: that you have to be really close behind someone to hurt them. The behaviour of the ANC's former leaders over the last few days has shown this to be true. During an election campaign one expects opposition parties to do everything to sabotage each other. But when your own former leaders do it to you just before an election, then you know it could be a self-inflicted wound. And the wounds inflicted by Kgalema Motlanthe and Thabo Mbeki might haunt the ANC for some time to come. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

There are only two people who have been previously deployed to the position of President by the ANC who are still with us. In the space of just two days, they have both sent harsh messages to their own party.

First, on Sunday, City Press published and interview with Kgalema Motlanthe, in which he said that “it’s almost as though the country is running on autopilot”. He decried a lack of leadership before saying, perhaps most damagingly, that “the body of ANC leaders involved in government is overwhelmingly large. They no longer rely on reason. In the past, the ANC always prided itself on relying on a superior argument. Now, it’s numbers they rely on.” If that is not a reference to the Premiers, the Premier League, and the way President Jacob Zuma has run the ANC, it’s hard to imagine what else it could be.

Then, on Monday, Julius Malema and five of his top leaders went to have tea with Thabo Mbeki. As a political event, this is simply staggering. It is audacious, breath-taking, just absolutely incredible, especially as the history between the two is all but pretty. In 2008 this writer was within the sweaty journalistic throng outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court moments just as Judge Chris Nicolson had turfed out the corruption charges against Zuma.

Triumphant, Malema stormed up to a microphone and in front of around five thousand people uttered the phrase that defined Mbeki’s recall:

“Bye bye Mbeki, bye bye,” he said.

It was a shocking thing to say then. Just eight days later, Mbeki was gone.

Added to the Mbeki-EFF summit, there is a volatile political situation in Gauteng, where everyone is chasing floating Mbeki voters. Time and time again you will have read it, in this publication and in other places, this election is about the people who used to vote for the ANC during the Mbeki years, and don’t like Zuma. They are the most important demographic: if you can predict what they will do, you can predict what will happen in Joburg and Tshwane. It is for this reason that the ANC has been courting Mbeki so assiduously, why there has been so much speculation about whether he will in fact campaign for the ANC.

Then there is the timing. Politicians with experience know that a shock takes two full days to sink in. To make this move on Sunday or Tuesday would not have had the same impact as it could have on Monday. It takes a full day of the media discussing it, of those images being published, broadcast and shared for the moment itself to take full effect. (Mbeki’s spokesperson, Mukoni Rashitanga, announced on Monday night that Mbeki will also meet ANC’s mayoral candidates for Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni at his home on Tuesday morning. Such an obviously hastily put together event goes a long way towards explaining just how high the consternation level was in the Luthuli House as Malema made his way to Mbeki’s residence.)

And then there was the choreography here. Mbeki went all out, as far as he possibly could, to embrace Malema. He allowed the media to take their own pictures, he hugged him on camera, a picture of the EFF team in his actual home has been released. It is a much warmer welcome than Joburg Mayor Parks Tau received, when he went to visit Mbeki at the headquarters of his foundation. Mbeki treated Malema as a favourite son, he treated Tau as a young person of whom he approves.

All of that said, it is important to examine why this was done. It is hard to claim, as Malema did after the meeting, that the two met because they share the same values. Malema is the man who built his success on addressing the deep seated anger among the young and fed-up of South Africa, and there are millions of them. But he also fights for the poor while wearing a Breitling. He is a populist who would be called a demagogue by many.

In other words, Malema is the antithesis of the scholarly, pensive Mbeki.

Politically, they espouse little in common. Malema wants expropriation, Mbeki governed with fiscal prudence. Malema wants radical change, Mbeki did all he could to keep things the same. Malema claims to represent the future, Mbeki very much represents the past.

This then would surely suggest that the only thing they have in common is their shared history with the man who has out-lived them in the ANC: their hatred of Zuma is enough to bind them together.

While it may be that these are simply two people who went up against Zuma and lost ganging together, it is also another important indicator of how the ANC, and Zuma himself, should take some responsibility for allowing this to happen. Properly mature, democratic movements do not have former leaders who try to damage them on the eve of elections. Rather they find ways to manage the transfer of power, to ensure that processes and structures are proper and legitimate. This has only happened because of the way Zuma has managed things. He didn’t just defeat Mbeki at Polokwane, he ousted him. He, and he alone, had the power to stop the recall of Mbeki, but he let it happen. He had to humiliate him.

Zuma’s treatment of Motlanthe has not been much better. Motlanthe’s critique of how in the ANC “now it’s numbers they rely on” as opposed to superior argument is a specific criticism of the way Zuma, and the people around him, have managed the ANC.

There are better, gentler ways to express dissatisfaction, and the political parties that use those methods tend to not be sabotaged by former leaders. Zuma has shown no interest in accommodating people he has defeated; for him politics is a fight to win and to the death.

But there is another critique to be made. Throughout this election campaign, promises have been made, but policy, by and large, has not been the focal point. Far more time has been spent arguing over who has the real right to the Mandela legacy than to how to fix drains. All the parties are responsible here: The ANC has simply used race, the DA has used Mandela, the EFF has used anger. (At one point DA spokesperson Phumzile van Damme couldn’t even spell out differences between the policy of her party and of the ANC during a radio interview.) The ANC has relied on the past, rather than policy throughout this campaign.

This has been a campaign dominated by personalities, and the squabbles, petty and personal, between them. Not unlike elsewhere in the world, LGE 2016 was more about politics of identity than politics of delivery. And the country is poorer for it.

Make no mistake: South Africa deserves better. DM

Photo: Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki in Polokwane, 18 Dec 2007. (Photo: Greg Marinovich)


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