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Andrew Feinstein

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The ANC in Crisis

Here is a piece on ANC succession that I wrote recently for UK readers.

Jacob Zuma is a barrel-chested man with a large, open face which often breaks into a brilliant smile. Down the right side of his face is a long scar which attests to a life of struggle and hardship. Arriving illiterate on Robben Island in his early twenties, Zuma revealed not only a great capacity for learning but a political shrewdness and toughness that after his release saw him rise to become head of ANC intelligence, in 1987.

With the advent of democracy in South Africa, Zuma became ANC leader in his Zulu-dominated home province of KwaZulu-Natal. He served as the province’s economics minister before being made the country’s deputy president by President Thabo Mbeki in 1999.

But in 2005, Zuma’s financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for corruption based on a relationship of “mutually beneficial symbiosis” with the deputy president. Mbeki fired his former ally, who soon faced his own corruption trial and was also charged with the rape of a young, HIV-positive family friend.

In May 2006, Zuma was acquitted of the rape charges, and a few months later his corruption trial was struck from the roll for procedural reasons, although prosecutors are about to re-charge him. Zuma and his supporters claim these legal difficulties were the work of Mbeki, attempting to prevent Zuma undermining the president’s quest for an unprecedented third term as ANC leader.

Mbeki, who is constitutionally prevented from serving a third term as South Africa’s president when his current mandate expires in early 2009, hoped to continue as party president. He would then have been able to handpick a successor and remain the power behind the presidential throne. But Zuma, despite his legal difficulties, appears, at the time of writing, likely to defeat the incumbent at the ANC electoral conference in mid-December.

This battle for the leadership of the party has torn the ANC apart, engendering factionalism, division and open hatred that has left this once-fêted liberation movement of Mandela, Tambo and Luthuli facing its gravest ever crisis.

The fact that Zuma is likely to emerge victorious is more a reflection of Mbeki’s failings than of Zuma’s qualities. Where Zuma is a populist “man of the people,” Mbeki has been a detached, autocratic technocrat during the almost ten years that he has led the ANC.

In modernising the ANC into a governing party, Mbeki has transformed it from a broad church of vibrant, internal debate to a closed shop in which a small clique of trusted allies makes decisions. A master of behind-the-scenes intrigue, Mbeki seldom listens to outside advice, takes criticism very personally and vilifies those he perceives as being against him.

This unfortunate leadership style has led an intelligent man into many major blunders. His continuing denial that HIV causes Aids has unnecessarily cost tens of thousands of South African lives. The “quiet diplomacy” approach to Robert Mugabe’s tyranny in Zimbabwe has made a joke of Mbeki’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad).

But the area Mbeki regards as his greatest success has been the seed of his political failure. Faced with the difficult act of balancing reacceptance into a conformist global economy with the need for social justice, Mbeki expended significant political capital in imposing an orthodox economic framework on the country. Despite bitter opposition from the ANC’s allies in the trade union movement and the South African Communist party, the framework undoubtedly restored stability and growth to the anaemic apartheid economy. However, it has failed to make big inroads into the country’s 30 per cent formal unemployment rate. Deracialisation of education, the building of low-cost housing and the provision of basic services have all improved the lives of most black South Africans, but very slowly.

At the same time, the policy of black economic empowerment has seen the emergence of a growing black middle class, but has also been distorted to enable the creation of a small elite of massively wealthy black oligarchs, most of whom are politically well connected.

Mbeki’s refusal to allow open debate on these key policy areas within the ANC has been paralleled publicly by an aloof insensitivity to the impact of the violent crime battering the country. As his detachment and isolation have grown, so Mbeki’s paranoia has intensified. By stamping out dissenters and creating a mindset of “the leader knows best,” he has engendered an environment of fear and patronage in which loyalty is the only reliable currency.

Moreover, in an elision of government and party, Mbeki has been willing to use state organs to neutralise potential threats to his power. In 2001, before a previous ANC electoral conference, his minister of police announced to a shocked press briefing that three senior members of the ANC were plotting to overthrow and even physically harm the president. In fact, the three were simply organising a slate of anti-Mbeki candidates. Unsurprisingly, all oppositional mobilisation came to a rapid end.

Mbeki has continued to protect his incompetent chief of police, Jackie Selebi, who proudly admits to a friendship with the country’s most notorious mafia warlord. In fact, when Vusi Pikoli, the country’s director of public prosecutions (equivalent to Britain’s attorney-general), recently issued a warrant for the arrest of Selebi, he was removed from his post. Similarly, Mbeki has kept faith with his health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, a fellow Aids denialist, who recommends beetroot, garlic and the African potato as preferable to antiretrovirals in the treatment of Aids.

It is no coincidence that the health minister’s husband, Mendi Msimang, is the ANC’s treasurer. The man in charge of the party’s finances has overseen the receipt of funds from a controversial (and later assassinated) gold-mining magnate; from a state oil company, illegally; and, most damagingly, in kickbacks from a £5bn arms deal in 1999 (involving BAE Systems, among others), the investigation of which Mbeki ruthlessly undermined, subjugating parliament to his will.

The British Serious Fraud Office and German prosecutors are investigating more than $200m of bribes paid in the arms deal. Besides the ANC itself, alleged recipients include the then defence minister, Joe Modise—a close Mbeki confidante until his death in 2001—and Modise’s political adviser. The fact that only Zuma and Schabir Shaik have faced prosecution in relation to the deal reinforces the view that Mbeki uses the justice system selectively to address his political needs. Some in the South African media even suggest that a further reason for the suspension of Vusi Pikoli is his seeming unwillingness to re-charge Zuma before the ANC electoral conference.

Such an intervention would have been very useful to Mbeki in his quest to prolong his dominance. For Jacob Zuma has been very successful at styling himself as the victimised “man of the people,” in contrast to the technocratic president and his “briefcase carriers.” This appeal has mined the rich vein of anti-Mbeki feeling within the ANC, with the result that 60 per cent of party branches have nominated Zuma as ANC president in preference to Mbeki.

But if Zuma were to become ANC president, he would do so with more than just his legal travails hanging over him. His embarrassing comments at his rape trial—that he avoided contracting Aids by showering vigorously after unprotected sex—were followed a few days later by aggressive homophobic remarks. This created the image of a macho bigot rather than an enlightened leader of a progressive organisation.

Zuma’s trade union and Communist supporters have proclaimed him a “man of the left” who will change economic policy in favour of the poor. But nothing in his time as a provincial economics minister, nor in his few policy pronouncements to date, suggests this is the case. Nonetheless, he will very quickly come under sustained pressure from these allies to deliver a return on their support. His less-than-public financial backers are likely to have quite different expectations.

These contradictory choices might be delayed for a while, though, because even if Zuma has become ANC president, he is not assured of the country’s presidency come the general election in April 2009. In November, Zuma lost two high court appeals attempting to quash aspects of the evidence against him. The victories have expanded the state’s case and prosecutors are confident of success, given the damning judgement against his financial adviser. He is, therefore, likely to be re-charged in the new year.

So the ANC has been faced with an awful choice. If Mbeki has defied the odds and won again, the party will be damned to a further erosion of its historic values and traditions by an aloof, autocratic president. Or it could have a new party president on trial for corruption, with two competing centres of power—party and government—marshalled by men who are sworn enemies.

However, at the time of writing there is a small possibility that the two mighty elephants will give up their fight to the death and withdraw in favour of a compromise candidate unsullied by the recent years of moral decline. Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale, two popular ANC leaders who have spent the Mbeki years away from politics amassing business fortunes, are often mentioned as possibilities.

The more likely scenario is that Zuma wins the election, is soon embroiled in a corruption trial and, if found guilty and given a prison sentence with no option of a fine, is constitutionally excluded from seeking the country’s presidency. With Mbeki discredited by defeat, this would provide the political space for a compromise candidate to emerge.

With the ANC embroiled in this unedifying spectacle, it will only be when both Mbeki and Zuma are removed from the fray that the organisation can hope to revitalise both itself and South African politics. For the country is in desperate need of focused, enlightened and efficient government to address the linked catastrophes of Aids, poverty and crime.


As expected, Jacob Zuma resoundingly defeated Thabo Mbeki for the ANC presidency at the party’s Polokwane congress, only the second time an incumbent has been removed by the ANC in its almost 100-year history. Zuma’s supporters now occupy all six office-bearer positions in the organisation, and scores of Mbeki supporters, including a number of cabinet ministers, failed even to be re-elected to the ANC’s 80-strong national executive committee.

However, no sooner had celebrations begun among Jacob Zuma’s supporters, when the country’s chief prosecutor announced that there was sufficient evidence to re-charge the new president for fraud and corruption. While this came as no surprise, the prosecutors acted so precipitously in part in response to the ANC conference decision the previous day calling for the national prosecuting authority to be placed under the control of the justice department. This would reduce the prosecutors’ independence and open them to greater direct political pressure.

As I made clear in my article, Zuma definitely has a case to answer. The key is whether the new political powers in the ANC will attempt to prevent their new president being tried.

It is essential for South Africa’s democracy that Zuma has his day in court. If innocent, he will almost definitely become the country’s next president when Thabo Mbeki stands down in April 2009. However, if found guilty, he will have to suffer the consequences of his misdemeanours, which will include the end of his political ambitions. This will open the way, as I suggested, for a candidate to emerge who is likely to be far better for the country than either Zuma or Mbeki. After the ANC’s congress, the man in pole position is undoubtedly the party’s new deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe.

However, if political machinations prevent Jacob Zuma being re-charged, a dark shadow of suspicion will hang over the new president and the party he leads.

This article originally appeared in Prospect magazine.