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We have a lot to learn from Jacob Zuma’s engineering of Thambo Mbeki’s downfall

By Anyang' Nyong'o | Oct 5th 2014 | 6 min read

William Mervin Gumede, the South African journalist and well known chronicler of the ANC politics, had more or less predicted it: but not many read Gumede’s “Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for The Soul of the ANC” with the attention it deserved.

The book had been published in early 2007 (London: Zed Books) and I remember buying it during a trip to Pretoria and reading it on the plane all the way to Nairobi. When I got home, knowing that the ANC’s 52nd National Conference would be held soon, I called my friend Brigalia Bam, then chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission, and just remarked: “Please read Gumede’s book: I think Mbeki is in trouble.” Apparently Brigalia never had the time to do so. When the Conference was held in Polokwane from December 16-20 2007, Mbeki was replaced as the chairman of the ANC by his former Deputy President Jacob Zuma. Gumede had seen this coming. The plot thickened from then on. Why do I tell this story?

I tell this story because the final fall from power by a president so revered and respected as Thabo Mbeki should send some signals to some presidents in the East African region. Even Julius Caesar forgot “he had human blood like us”, so Shakespeare observed. But the struggle for the soul of the ANC, finally reaching a denouement in the month of September 2008 with the ouster of Mbeki from the presidency barely seven months from officially finishing his term, said a lot about party politics in South Africa and the maturity of democracy there.

Elsewhere the event would have been more tumultuous, and perhaps blood would have been shed. Is somebody listening from a nearby border? Or is that one of those African countries with a never changing military authoritarian regime where “revolutionaries never retire?” I hope not.

Democratic governance goes beyond successful competitive elections with winners celebrating victory while losers accepting the results as legitimate. When neither of these happen, or only one part of the equation is fulfilled, it is difficult to speak of a functioning democracy as such.

Going further, democratic governance is also about the stability of institutions which generate competitors in the electoral process and the extent to which they play by the rules of the democratic game — within such institutions and in their interaction with the state — to sustain democratic governance. This is what is called constitutionalism since constitutions usually set out the broad principles for democratic governance embracing both the state and the political economy in which it operates.

In this regard, Frank Chikane — who served for long under Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema as Director-General in the Presidency — has taken the ANC to task over the manner in which it bundled Mbeki out of power in September 2008. The month of September, like Shakespeare’s Ides of March, marked a blot in the struggle for democratic governance and constitutionalism in South Africa. His book, “Eight Days in September: The Removal of Thabo Mbeki” (Johannesburg: Picador Africa, 2012) though repetitive at times, gives careful details of the intrigues, plots, manoeuvres and rationale employed by the ANC leadership in “recalling” Mbeki from the presidency.


In Chikane’s view Mbeki did not deserve this kind of treatment notwithstanding the bad blood he had created with some of his comrades by relieving Jacob Zuma of the Deputy Presidency in 2005. The story went like this. Zuma, and one of his top advisers, had been accused of corruption involving bribery and kickbacks in a major arms deal.

Apart from the proceedings in court the case was everywhere, and Mbeki was facing a challenge to prove to the nation that he was serious about fighting corruption. Finally he went to Parliament and announced that precisely because his government was committed to fighting corruption, “comrade Jacob Zuma could no longer fulfil his responsibilities as Deputy President while facing these challenges to his integrity”.

A good number of the ANC aparatchiki were not amused by Mbeki’s move; they were convinced that Zuma had been set up by those who didn’t want him to succeed Mbeki. Some even went further than this: they implicated Mbeki and his close allies in government in the plot against Zuma, and the party suddenly became a divided house between Mbekists and Zumists.

At the party Conference in Polokwane the Zumists effectively mobilised to elect their man to the chairmanship of the party, leaving Mbeki only with the state presidency: Gumede had seen this coming. Fabricated e-mails were soon to fly around showing how the Mbekists had plotted against Zuma.

When the Zuma corruption case came before Judge Chris Nicholson and he confirmed the allegations in the emails by accusing the Mbeki government of “victimising” Zuma unfairly, the die was finally cast. The Zumists were determined to cut short Mbeki’s stay at the helm of the state “ngoko” (now) and not tomorrow.

Frank Chikane’s “Eight Days in September” is a careful chronicling of how this was done and its aftermath. Painful though the process was to Mbeki, his Cabinet and those who worked closely with him in party and government, Mbeki himself comes out as a real “party man” much more concerned about “the big picture” of safeguarding South Africa’s “ national democratic revolution” than defending himself or wallowing in self-pity.

Although the concept of the ruling party “recalling” the state President from his position had no place whatsoever in the South African constitution, Mbeki insisted that he could not disobey his organisation. He had grown up in politics in the ANC. The ANC had nominated him to contest the presidency twice. The party, therefore, had the right to denominate him as well.

Chikane, however, argues that the ANC should have given Mbeki a hearing before taking such a radical — and unconstitutional — measure.

Mbeki, on the other hand, understood the politics behind the move, and had no wish to complicate matters by challenging his colleagues and prolonging the crisis. The peace and stability of South Africa overrode any injustice he might have felt at the personal level.

In this regard the dictum of “there comes a time when the interest of the nation becomes much more important than that of the individual” was seen in word and deed when Mbeki gracefully handed over power to his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, and the latter subsequently handed over to Jacob Zuma barely seven months later. Rules of the democratic game were faithfully being followed, and South Africa’s democratic governance has been the better off for that to date.

In Kenya, however, we have, from one election to the other, kept on establishing governments by subverting democratic rules of the game for tribal expediency. Temporary “conquests” then amount to years and years of poor governance that simply postpone the maturing of our national democratic revolution. We explain politics in simple and opportunistic terms, whether at intellectual or platform levels until it is impossible to distinguish between leaders and sycophantic followers.

A good reading of Chikane’s book will impress any Kenyan how mature political discourse is in South Africa notwithstanding the many problems that are also to be found there. It is one thing to recognise that problems exist; it is quite another to discuss such problems in a manner that provides a productive solution to such problems.

In South Africa they seem to grapple with both issues. In Kenya we are adept at shadow boxing and waiting for Godot while we wallow in ethnic self-gratification.


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