Monday, 29 September 2008

South Africa's Political Tsunami

With the inglorious ouster of Thabo Mbeki from the presidency of South Africa on allegations of judicial interference, a new chapter have opened in the politics of the former apartheid enclave

By Emma Alozie

It is no longer news that a political tsunami has swept across the political landscape of South Africa, sweeping away their president, Thabo Mbeki. It is also no longer news that Kgalema Motlanthe, the deputy president of the African National Congress, ANC has been sworn in as the interim president of South Africa. However, what has kept many observers guessing is what happens to the political future of Mbeki, a man who has in the last 14 years bestrode South Africa's political landscape like a colossus. Many commentators are saying that Mbeki may take the Nelson Mandela option by retiring quietly to his Transkei clan and be satisfied with being a statesman of repute; others are saying that Mbeki, a natural politician is still in his political prime to contemplate retirement.

To this end, suggestions are rife in the political circles that he may be contemplating breaking away from the ANC, a party he has been following since he was fourteen. According to Standard Chartered Bank's analysts, "the threat of a breakaway party is now significant. The ANC remains the dominant party in South Africa, but any exodus by a large number of centrists, would leave party policy even more at the mercy of more radical influences.”

While Mbeki's mortal political enemy and heir to the 2009 presidency, Jacob Zuma trivialises the current political situations in South Africa, leaders of opposition parties in South Africa are somewhat revelling in the political misfortunes of the oldest political party in Africa, the ANC. "Let me emphasise the current political changes taking place in the country are nothing extraordinary," boasted Zuma, claiming that, “The situation will soon return to normal as we know exactly what we should do, and are doing it with speed, precision and sensitivity."

On her own part, Helen Zille, the leader of the biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, says the current political crisis has highlighted the deep divisions within the ANC. "President Mbeki's ousting may prove to be the undoing of the ANC's electoral dominance," she said. No doubt, the ouster of Mbeki that has seen 11 loyal members of his cabinet voluntarily towing his line, could be a big test to ANC's electoral fortunes, Mbeki's reassurances of loyalty to the party, which has spanned for a period of 52 years notwithstanding.

Many analysts and observers have said that Mbeki as a shrewd politician should have seen this long knife coming before it was used to lacerate his political empire. His descent into political feather weight has been traced to the ANC convention in Polokwane in December of 2007, where despite his enormous presidential powers, his former deputy and main political foe trounced him to the leadership of ANC. Mbeki's greatest undoing was tactically ousting Zuma in 2005 as his deputy levelling arms deal wrong doing against the Zulu political heavyweight. Zuma is widely regarded in the Rainbow nation as a grassroots man and a populist who would be easier to play ball with against the Breton Woods economic disposal of Mbeki. When South Africa embraced popular democracy in 1994, the hitherto maltreated black population thought their fortunes would automatically change for the better, but 14 years down the line, they claim it is only promises and promises from Mbeki, who has held the reigns of power for close to a decade now. "He was a bad president. He divided our country", many Zuma supporters chorused at the fall of Mbeki. Therefore in Zuma, majority of peasant South Africans see hope, especially as Zuma is viewed as one of their own because he possesses no Ivy League education.

The former president did not envisage that in no too distant a future, his witch hunting political tactics would catch up with him. In 2001, he used his minister of safety and security to accuse three leading members of the party of plotting to oust him. The accused - former ANC secretary-general, Cyril Ramaphosa and two former provincial premiers, Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa - were among the party's most respected figures. Even Nelson Mandela himself emerged from retirement to say that he held all three in "high esteem," which to a large extent undermined Mbeki's motive. But today in the Zuma leadership of the party, Mathew Phosa is the ANC Treasurer General, one of the top party posts. Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale are among the 86 members of the National Executives of the party who sealed the hopes of Mbeki. What a way to take the proverbial pound of flesh.

What may not have to come to fore on the overwhelming influence of Zuma on the current political dispensation of the former apartheid enclave is the issue of tribe. Given the struggle against apartheid by black South Africans, it seems to any undiscerning eye that the country might be inured against playing politics along ethnic and tribal politics. But in the build up to the December 2007 Polokwane convention, the murmur of the Zulus became louder and louder. To them, Zuma, one of their own should be given a chance for the house in Pretoria as both Mandela and Mbeki are from the Xhosa ethnic group. Zuma, the populist might have after all played the ethnic card to ascent the ANC leadership throne and deal Mbeki an unforgettable blow.

Maybe after this time out, Mbeki may learn to give Zuma his respect as a master political strategist who takes his time to strike when the pain would be felt so much. Followers of South African politics say that Zuma had since the Polokwane convention perfected the plan to ease Mbeki out of power. He started by easing out Mbeki's loyalists from sensitive positions in the party and filling same with his own loyalists. He foresaw a situation like this and this explains why he chose Kgalema Motlanthe as his deputy and made sure that he would be elected into the parliament soon after. Analysts say Motlanthe's low public profile and lack of a personal support base means he is regarded as a safe interim president - there is no way he could possibly hold on to the presidency once Zuma decides his time has come. That is Zuma and his political sagacity.

Motlanthe, born 59 years ago, was an apostle of Steve Biko the famous anti-apartheid campaigner. He cut his teeth into the struggle at a very tender age when he joined the Black Consciousness Movement. He got his fair share of the apartheid regime's high handedness as he spent 10 years in the notorious Robben Island prison for his activism a year after the 1976 Soweto uprising, when black students fought against the policy forcing them to learn in Afrikaans.

His political rise has been slow but sure. In 1997, he became ANC secretary-general and 10 years later he was elected as the ruling party's deputy president. Affectionately known as "Mkhulu" (grandfather in Zulu), he is well respected by both the core supporters of bitter rivals - outgoing President Thabo Mbeki and Mr Zuma. According to South Africa's Business Day paper, he is regarded by many "as the glue that holds the tripartite alliance (ANC, South African Communist Party and trade union federation Cosatu) together.”

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