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South Africa: History ‘repeating’?

South Africa: History ‘repeating’?
  • PublishedFebruary 14, 2018

The current political situation in South Africa is sort of familiar. Be the judge as we take you back to Pusch Commey’s February 2008 analysis – during the then “battle for the soul of the ANC”. What will change in 2018 onwards?

 From our Archives: Dateline: Johannesburg –  February 2008

In December when the ANC deputy president, Jacob Zuma, beat Thabo Mbeki for the presidency of the ruling ANC party, the stage was set for more clashes to come. And they are coming and getting nasty! So, how did it all come to this? How did brother come against brother, comrade against comrade?

The election for party positions was a complete rejection of all of Thabo Mbeki’s men. Every candidate fielded by him lost the race to Zuma’s candidates, from the ANC presidency to the post of deputy secretary general. With two more years to the end of his tenure as state president, Thabo Mbeki is having a rough ride.

He now has to answer to his former deputy whom he fired in 2005 on allegations of corruption. Already it is Jacob Zuma’s signature which appears at the bottom of the “Letter from the President” on the ANC website, a popular column used by Mbeki to communicate to the country and outside world on the affairs of state. He also used it to assail his political adversaries.

Now he has lost the ANC platform. Part of the problem is the electoral system (proportional representation) of the country which makes the ruling party supreme in the choice of the state president.

So far, or since coming to power in 1994, the ANC has managed this conflict nicely by automatically making the president of the ANC the president of the country.

But now, in the wake of two presidents, and despite a public display of unity, there is bad blood spattered all over the place.

It began not too long after Mbeki assumed the presidency in 1999. It was in the same year that he appointed Bulelani Ngcuka as the head of a revamped National Prosecution Authority (NPA). Ngcuka subsequently resigned after intimating that Zuma was corrupt.

The Scorpions, an imitation of America’s FBI, was formed with powers of investigation and arrest, but answerable only to the NPA. It was created for the purpose of fighting organised crime.

Then began the investigation and prosecution of high profile ANC members. In the dock were Winnie Mandela, a popular voice; then Tony Yengeni, ex-chief whip of the ANC; followed by a number of parliamentarians on fraud charges, and now Jacob Zuma himself.

There have also been attempts to investigate some of the most strident critics of Mbeki, including the vociferous Blade Nzimande, chairman of the South African Communist Party, a Zuma man.

Most of the prosecutions were spearheaded by Bulelani Ngcuka, close to Mbeki. After Zuma was fired as deputy president, Bulelani Ngcuka’s ex-wife, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, was appointed deputy president to replace Zuma.

This has muddied the waters in the face of what seemed like a genuine attempt to clean up government corruption which had become a matter of serious concern.

Part of the problem is the electoral system (proportional representation) of the country which makes the ruling party supreme in the choice of the state president.

However, it is the attempt to bring a liberation icon such as Jacob Zuma to book that has caused all the trouble. In pole position for state presidency, Zuma was investigated on corruption charges dating back to 2001, and this has conversely led to a counter-charge of a political witchhunt by his backers.

They claim it is an attempt by Mbeki to prevent Zuma from becoming the next state president. Soon after Zuma’s December victory, the acting head of the NPA, Moketedi Mpshe, came back from leave to announce that Zuma would face charges in August ranging from corruption and racketeering to tax evasion.

Zuma’s suporters have interpreted this as further confirmation of the “sinister” attempt to deny him the state presidency. And they are incensed!

Zet Luzipho, the KwazuluNatal leader of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which backs Zuma, has threatened that “blood will be spilt”.

So bad is the feeling against Mbeki and the NPA that the Zuma camp has resolved to disband the Scorpions who have been instrumental in nailing erring politicians. The flip-side is that the Scorpions have come to be seen as Mbeki’s not so secret weapon.

Now the Zuma camp is beginning to flex its political muscles. They have seized control of all the powerful organs of the party. The 86-member National Executive Committee, the decision-making body of the ANC, is populated by Zuma sympathisers. Most Mbeki backers have been flushed out.

In the December elections, Winnie Mandela got the highest number of votes. Also polling very high were Tony Yengeni and his wife, as well as Mbeki’s friend-turned-opponent Billy Masethla. And when the ANC’s 28-member National Working Committee, its implementation arm, was announced, it was full of Zuma backers – including Yengeni and General Simphiwe Nyanda, the exchief of the South African Defence Force (SADF).

Said Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s new secretary general: “There is no government and the ANC, the ANC is the party that leads the government.”

Ominously, the National Working Committee has announced a review of an investigation into what has been popularly termed “the arms deal”. In 1996, the government launched a huge procurement bid to modernise the fighting capabilities of the SADF. Arms worth billions of dollars were to be purchased, including navy corvettes and fighter jets.

The bid attracted arms manufacturers of all shapes and sizes who swooped into town with fat briefcases filled with dollars, seeking out politicians with the power to influence the bid. When the winning bidders were announced in 1999, a huge controversy erupted, with opposition parties accusing the government of “massive” corruption in the arms procurement process. Huge amounts of money were alleged to have been paid into secret accounts to influence the bid process.

And even now, British and German investigators are said to be probing bribes to the tune of US$200m paid by British and German bidders.

It is within the context of the arms deal that Zuma’s legal problems arise. He is alleged to have formed a “generally corrupt relationship” with a businessman who got subcontracts for the supply of defence systems. Shabir Shaik, Zuma’s businessman-friend, is now serving a 15-year jail sentence for fraud and corruption.

He is alleged to have made several payments to Zuma and his family and solicited bribes on their behalf from bidders, in exchange for Zuma using his influence to secure contracts for them. The curious thing is that the government itself set up an investigation committee which included the NPA to investigate the allegations of corruption, and found no wrongdoing.

Millions of dollars are alleged to have changed hands but, interestingly, Zuma, then the deputy state president and head of government business, is not rich. Evidence during Shabir Shaik’s trial showed Zuma to have been struggling financially for a long time.

Both Zuma and former chief whip Tony Yengeni defended the deal then, but for some strange reason, Yengeni was prosecuted and convicted for the offence of lying to parliament about a discount he got on a Mercedes-Benz car from one of the bidders in the arms saga. He is not the first parliamentarian to have lied to parliament though, but the only one to have been prosecuted for the offence. Zuma backers, who include leftist organisations like Cosatu, the South African Communist Party (SACP), and the Young Communist League, have always charged that Mbeki has abused state institutions to further his political agenda. Now they want to get him.

So where did the millions of dollars allegedly paid in bribes for arms procurement go? So far nobody has been prosecuted and the ANC has closed ranks over the subject. But that might soon change.

The desire to review “the arms deal” by the National Working Committee (on which, interestingly, Zuma and Yengeni sit), shows that there is trouble brewing.

They definitely would be in the know as to who unlawfully benefited from the arms deal and who did not. Skeletons will then start tumbling out of the cupboard, and it is most likely to be those of the Mbeki camp. It will, thus, not be surprising if Mbeki’s name is dragged into the mud.

It will also not be surprising if there are calls, soon, from the Zuma faction to investigate any irregularities in the Mbeki government.

In the long-running legal saga, Zuma has intimated that he will call Mbeki as a witness because he knows all about the arms deal and “actively participated”. Throw in the former head of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), Billy Masethla, who was fired by Mbeki and was prosecuted and acquitted on some unusual charges. He was Mbeki’s close confidant, but they are now not best of friends – and he must know quite a bit about the arms deal and his personal life.

Interestingly, Mbeki, as an ex-officio member of the National Working Committee, did not bother to attend its first sitting during which the members came out in full support of Zuma in his pending trial and backed him in his bid to become the next state president.

South Africa today is on the verge of a mighty upheaval that if left unchecked might set back all the gains our fledgling democracy has hitherto achieved on all fronts.

And in an extraordinary move, Mbeki’s mother, Epainette Mbeki, has written an article in the newspapers to defend her son. She wrote: “South Africa today is on the verge of a mighty upheaval that if left unchecked might set back all the gains our fledgling democracy has hitherto achieved on all fronts.” It was hard stuff. No wonder, the article has come under serious criticism from readers.

Meanwhile Zuma is unfazed, taking for himself a fourth wife in a traditional ceremony at his homestead in Kwazulu-Natal. At the 96th birthday celebration of the ANC in early January, Zuma promised to deal seriously with all those in government who sidestepped the ANC.

How did it all come to this? How did brother come against brother, comrade against comrade? Some commentators have pointed to the pitfalls of expediency.

During the turbulent days when Chief Buthelezi’s Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party battled for turf with the ANC, the prime concern of the ANC was to ensure the integrity of the country as a whole.

The apartheid regime had armed and used Inkatha as a “third force” against the ANC, leading to low intensity warfare in which scores of black people died. It was thus expedient that Mbeki would offer the post of deputy president to Chief Buthelezi in exchange for control of the restive Kwazulu Natal Province, but Buthelezi declined.

How did brother come against brother, comrade against comrade? Some commentators have pointed to the pitfalls of expediency.

Mbeki expediently gave the post to Zuma, a Zulu like Buthelezi. Zuma then went to his home province and delivered the peace. But the trouble might have begun when he started nursing presidential ambitions to the chagrin of Mbeki who never had him in mind as his successor. Maybe Mbeki, the highly intelligent philosopher king, showed little respect for his erstwhile comrades, overplayed his hand and made too many enemies.

Maybe he was simply a principled man who wanted to protect the integrity of the state from greedy politicians who saw themselves as above the law. He may have also misread the victim psyche of the majority blacks who will rally behind anybody portrayed as oppressed, in this case Jacob Zuma.

Whatever it is, Mbeki has lost the battle for the soul of the ANC. And his opponents will be working tirelessly to bring him down.

Mbeki’s mother, Epainette, in her article which called for the disbandment of the headquarters of the ANC, Luthuli House, provided some insight.

She said that people were intimidated by her son and that he was too intelligent to reach down to them. It is precisely what has led to the perception that Mbeki is aloof, arrogant and vindictive, leading to his electoral demise and the rise of his adversaries.

So how will it all end? Whether Zuma wins his court case or not will be immaterial in the long run. If the ANC decides not to field him in the 2009 elections, he will literally select his own candidate. If convicted in the upcoming trial, he will receive a presidential pardon. Already the ANC is hell bent on dismantling the Scorpions. That it will do. And it will most likely appoint its own man to head the National Prosecution Authority. Therein lies the danger in making such an important position a political appointment.

These are dangerous times for South Africa. The Zuma trial, when it comes on, will intensify the animosity. A worrying factor will be if the whole saga is interpreted along ethnic lines as an attempt by a ruling Xhosa class to prevent a Zulu from ascending to the throne. It calls for cool heads and, maybe, a final dose of expediency – the kind that saw the transition from apartheid to democracy described worldwide as a “miracle”.

South Africa has come too far.

Written By
Pusch Commey

Pusch Commey is a Barrister of the High Court of South Africa, Award winning writer and associate editor of New African Magazine since 1999. He is based in Johannesburg South Africa. He is the author of 9 books including the best selling 100 great African kings and queens, and Tofi's Fire Dance. He is also the CEO of the South African based Real African Publishers, and the founder of the Real African Writers  series.

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