There may not be tears among many people at the exit of President Thabo Mbeki from the helm of affairs in South Africa: he was never that popular with people, not just inside but outside too. My regular readers will know that there has not been much love lost between us. Most of his critics and political enemies used to hate his guts, his fierce intellect and willingness to argue his corner and do so most forcefully often with arrogant disregard for others, but it won him the respect of many, even those who disagreed with him. As President, many feared him for his ruthlessness in dealing with opponents. Unfortunately in the last few years both the fear and the respect began to ebb away and he became more and more dependent on ruthless power manoeuvres to maintain and defend his power, thereby isolating himself from core ANC supporters, ordinary South Africans and popular forces both inside and outside the country. He simply did not know when to stop arguing and follow Bob Marley ‘stop and runaway to fight another day’!
His fall was long foretold, but somehow when the news of his resignation filtered through on Sunday it was widely received with incredulity. Personally I thought that the ANC would muddle through and let the man serve out his term as a lame duck on all domestic matters, while rescuing a bit of his international image in preparation for leaving power. The latter scenario seemed to be finally working out with the Zimbabwe Deal, for which he was long pilloried, finally being sealed. From Harare Mbeki headed for Khartoum. For a moment it looked like he was in the running for a Nobel nomination but it seems it was all too little, too late. He had lost the domestic power struggle.
The first lesson is the truism of the saying, ‘All politics is local’ which for ordinary people should read: charity begins at home. This applies both to democratic regimes and those with no pretension to any such legitimacy. Politicians hold or lose power based on the local power dynamics.
The second lesson is that being smart is not enough to retain power. Related to this is the fact that the best candidate may not always prevail in any political struggle.
Third, personal and political hegemony, no matter how long it may seem, do come to an end. As they write on buses in Nigeria ‘No condition is permanent’. And when they do, the trigger could just be so small, but with Tsunami political consequences, because power often blinds its temporal wielders and prevents them from seeing the real threat. Think of so many politicians who at the height of their powers felt and behaved as though they were gods and with enough bootlickers to assure them that there was no alternative to them, only to be blown aside later. Thatcher and Blair easily come to mind.
Finally, Thabo’s fall should also concern those who have swallowed the neo-liberal idea hook, line and sinker, that political leadership is only about delivering jobless growth without development. Macroeconomic successes without a horizontal integration of the interests and welfare of the people at the micro level, produce political backlashes for those who expouse technocracy without a heart. All economics is politics ultimately.
It is very tempting to gloat over Thabo’s insalubrious discharge from union buildings and miss the wider political significance for African politics. There is a lot more to come, but for now let’s look at what some of the unfolding implications mean for us. One, it is a blow against the omnipotent leader that is still regrettably common practice in Africa. Two, it is a triumph for party-based pluralist democracy. No matter how important any individual may be, they should not be the Alfa and Omega of the party, the state or the government. The ANC has proven that it is not owned by one person. Imagine the NRM recalling President Museveni. He would dissolve the party immediately! Would anybody in ZANU-PF have dared to suggest to aged comrade Bob, to consider stepping down? Simba Makone only put his name up for nomination (which he had no chance of winning) and he was dismissed from the party. Three, Thabo Mbeki, in finally taking the painful pill with unanticipated calmness and firmness, has actually regained a measure of respect. He read the writing on the wall and did the decent thing.
How many of our leaders have passed their sell-by date and would prefer the country collapse around them rather than bow out.
Mandela set a very high standard by quitting after only one term, even though he could have served an unchallenged second term and bowed out while he was still popular. An embarrassing lesson to some of our leaders who keep holding on to power based on ‘I am still popular’. Some of them have even dispensed with popularity or any other legitimacy other than ‘I am in power’, for instance Lansana Conte in Guinea-Conakry or Paul Biya of Cameroon.
There are many people who do not have much sympathy for Mbeki but are alarmed that Zuma’s victory may prove to be a costly pyrrhic one for South Africa. We have to keep faith in the democratic spirit of South Africa and the ANC masses. Should Zuma turn out not to be the messiah that Thabo’s mistakes turned him into, the same forces will boot him out. About that we can be certain in South Africa and it is this optimism that needs to be more commonly shared and made possible in many of our countries. No one should be indispensable for a party a government, the state and society as a whole. The humbling of Thabo is a welcome metaphor for the kind of new leadership that Africa desperately needs: serving at the pleasure of the masses who can dispense with your service as and when they democratically deem it fit.
“Forward ever, backward never”… Kwame Nkrumah (1909 – 1972)