As South Africa begins to shake with political instability, Dearbhail O’Crowley asks if history will repeat itself with President Motlanthe and ANANC leader, Jacob Zuma.
To some of the world, Thabo Mbeki is better known as Nelson Mandela’s successor than by his own name. To South Africans, however, he was the natural choice to lead the country after their revered leader stepped down.
On June 2, 1999, Mbeki, the pragmatic Deputy President of South Africa and leader of the African National Congress, was elected President in a landslide vote. Mbeki had at this point already assumed many of Mandela’s governing responsibilities shortly after Mandela won South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994.
Despite the unflinching nature of his rise to power, on 21 September Mbeki formally announced he was standing down as President. His resignation came after years of controversy amid public disputes with the leadership of the ANC, and it followed a humiliating defeat for the leadership of the party in December 2007.
Mbeki’s flexing of his political muscle in 2005 ultimately led to the deterioration of popular support after he publicly dismissed Jacob Zuma as Deputy President on the grounds that he had been involved in corruption.
Reputations of both men were tainted during the highly publicised and indeed vicious battle that took place during the trial. However, the fatal blow was delivered to President Mbeki’s standing when the South African High Court ruled against his accusations.
Quashing corruption charges against Zuma, Judge Chris Nicholson ruled that the National Prosecuting Authority had failed to follow proper procedures in charging Zuma.
Mbeki was never popular with party grassroots while trade union allies were angered by widening economic inequalities
Interestingly, the prosecution was accused of taking orders from Mbeki, in violation of the constitution.
Arguing that one does not “beat a dead snake”, Zuma remained publicly opposed to oust Mbeki. Yet the negative publicity that the dispute enflamed forced the ANC to refute their support for the President, leaving him with little option other than to resign.
The controversy undoubtedly hampered the reputation of Mbeki, arguably the most important leader on the African continent and counteracted the praise for the political stability and prosperity that accompanied his period in office. Despite this success, Mbeki was never popular with party grassroots while trade union allies were angered by widening economic inequalities. His eccentric views on Aids epidemic, and his statement that poverty, and not HIV was the root cause of the condition, made Mbeki many enemies and court intervention was necessary to secure treatment for pregnant women.
Local and international businessmen held Mbeki in high esteem for his stewardship of South Africa’s economy, yet a series of political miscalculations and bad policy decisions will inevitably cloud his legacy. The damage done to South Africa’s human rights record, by his siding with repressive regimes such as Sudan and Zimbabwe will also be difficult to shake off and a perceived lack of concern about the country’s high crime rate did little to silence critics of his political blunders.
Few doubt that Zuma is guilty of the corruption charges that he escaped, however he may be grateful to the prosecution as their behaviour won Zuma considerable sympathy. Political commentators have acknowledged that while Mbeki will not be mourned, Zuma is also a ‘deeply flawed man’, and have put his rise to ANC President down to Mbeki’s role in the dispute.
With the parliament now in Zuma’s hands, his influence appears more prevalent than the current South African President, Kgalema Motlanthe. His influence will undoubtedly shape the immediate future of South Africa, a country still only in its fledging years of post-apartheid democracy.
Questions regarding the implications of Zuma’s influence are undoubtedly being raised. The very prospect seems to horrify many who believe that more than a hint of corruption lingers about him. This, coupled with suspicions of racism raised from his supporters’ chants of a revolutionary song, ‘Bring me my machine gun’, and Zuma’s unpalatable views on HIV/Aids, have done little to put the people’s fears to rest.
Considering South Africa’s divisive and influential culture of political activism, it may be contended that Zuma’s rise to power will do little to unite those who hold the key to decisive action on any of these issues. In fact, it would appear that the controversy he may bring to office might serve to heighten the intractable nature of these ongoing problems.