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Chikane does not exaggerate the coup threat

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

In his book Eight Days in September, Reverend Frank Chikane makes an extraordinary claim: the ANC was almost happy to flout the rules to remove Thabo Mbeki from office. If you read the Constitution, he’s technically right. If there ever was a sign that South Africa’s democracy is young, and consequently vulnerable, it is this.

The African National Congress made it a point after the Polokwane conference to form a political school. The news was greeted with a smidgeon of alarm – what with the Orwellian overtones of a “political school” – but I happened to speak to someone who once attended classes at an ANC school run by a provincial division of the party. It turns out that this school was less 1984 and more Pink Floyd’s The Wall. They were literally being taught the bare basics of democracy – how one votes, what the Constitution says about various issues, and so forth. Obviously there was a little bit of indoctrination into the ANC culture, but in the large part it was pretty harmless stuff.

You might wonder why the ANC needs to do this. The sad fact is that the large majority of the party’s members simply don’t know what the rules of our democracy are.

When you read Eight Days in September: the removal of Thabo Mbeki by Frank Chikane, you can’t help but be struck by how ignorant some top leaders in the ANC are (apparently) of the Constitution and what powers it prescribes to various authorities.

Chikane describes the climate that swept the ANC at the time; that of the so-called ngoko chorus, which wanted to see Mbeki out of power before he had served his full term. There were three stages where this drama unfolded: Esselen Park in Kempton Park where the ANC’s national executive committee met and decided to recall the president, the presidential residence Mahlamba Ndlopfu and Parliament in Cape Town. The three separate locations serve to symbolise the spheres of power that were at tension.

The ANC NEC decided to recall Mbeki, and sent him that message from Esselen Park. However, the president is elected by Parliament, and the Constitution only allows Parliament to sack him. The ruling party has a strong culture of cadre deployment, which puts the party ahead of the state in the order of priorities for cadres. In its own mind, the ANC could recall the president because he was one of its own. Even though Chikane wasn’t at the NEC meeting (he had ceased to be a member after Polokwane), he says in the book that there were those who tried to remind the committee that the party couldn’t make the president step down, but they were drowned out. The ngoko chorus won.

For Chikane, the alarm bells really start ringing when the ANC dictates to Mbeki when and where he should resign, and also what he could or couldn’t do till his resignation had been finalised. This is where the ANC “came close to the definition of a coup d’état”.

“Constitutionally, the president could have ignored the ‘recall’, to force the party to use the constitutional mechanisms to remove him from office, if they could achieve the voting threshold required, which was unlikely at the time,” Chikane writes. “All other options would have been illegal or unconstitutional and would not have only risked destabilising the country but would have led to destabilisation. To avoid this, [Mbeki] chose to leave voluntarily.”

He also chose to abide by the ANC’s demand that he not attend a United Nations meeting in New York later that week, even though the Constitution clearly states that nobody should interfere with the president in the execution of his duties (I’m paraphrasing). Also, there was no consultation with Parliament about the Thursday (25 September 2008) deadline for Mbeki’s resignation because the ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbete also happened to be the speaker of Parliament at the time, and it is heavily suggested that she was also of the ngoko cry. To Chikane, this is no different to a president who is made to sign a resignation letter with a gun to his head.

It is no secret that Mbeki is an unpopular man in the media (save for the occasional apologist). He has been repeatedly lashed – even after he left office – on controversial points such as HIV/Aids and Zimbabwe. There was also the fact that the former president was quite prickly and could be difficult if upbraided, which didn’t endear him to the press. This hostility led the press not to question the ANC’s aggression towards Mbeki, Chikane says, because they were obviously happy that he was being removed.

“…The media did not examine the options that were open to the president and what their possible consequences were,” Chikane writes. “There was no serious analytical work, as the focus was on his removal from office, statements justifying his removal, his response, the resignation of his ministers, and about his successor.”

A glance through the stories that were being published at the time reveals that the local media might indeed have completely missed the brewing constitutional crisis. Although Chikane argues that we were all saved by Mbeki’s martyrdom, it could conceivably be argued that he stepped down at the party’s behest (instead of Parliament’s) precisely because the line between state and party were blurred in his own head.

Chikane relates an amusing story of an ANC meeting he attended in the North West where some members were offended by the notion of the president’s prerogative. Since they had deployed the president, the thinking went, they should be able to tell him what to do. Could it be that Mbeki believed this too?

At any rate, Chikane issues a strong reproach to the press and the opposition parties who also failed to raise the constitutional issue at Parliament. The real problem here isn’t so much that the ANC unceremoniously booted out the president of the country – it is the precedent that has been set. What will happen should the ANC decide that it doesn’t like Zuma anymore, and it recalls him, only to discover that he is happy to dare his own party to take the matter to Parliament? Will the more excitable comrades resort to violence? Would that be a catalyst for a bloody civil war?

We the media have a very important watchdog role in society. But it is one that we can’t fulfil if we don’t know what the rules are. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if reporters and journalists went to political school alongside ANC members who are wet behind the ears. It is also a lesson in what could happen if we lose sight of what is important – the hatred of Mbeki blinded so many that they went with the NEC’s decision, even if it was executed in a dangerous manner. The press would all do well to take Chikane’s rebuke to heart. DM


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