Long Live the King
The Natal Witness
William Saunderson-Meyer *
It must be galling for President Thabo Mbeki that within months of taking the African National Congress to its biggest electoral victory, the party is focused not on how to best roll out his policies to consolidate the Mbeki heritage but is engaged nationwide in fractious manoeuvrings as to who is to be his successor a full five years down the line.
There are, however, also opportunities for Mbeki in the process. The succession of Deputy President Jacob Zuma to the presidency had appeared inevitable until he fouled his own nest with financial arrangements which, whatever their nominal legality, were hopelessly inappropriate for a politician to enter into with a businessman seeking major state contracts. Zuma's misstep gave Mbeki the prospect of organising a successor with whom he is more in tune than the one foisted on him by an amorphous party congress.
To the chagrin of a substantial part of the ANC, including its Zuma-supporting Youth League, the unions and the SA Communist Party, the head office of the party has come out in support of the Gauteng region in arguing that the issue of succession is not sacrosanct and should be tackled now - ahead of the 2007 congress where a new leadership will be chosen prior to the 2009 general election.
The trick is for Mbeki to manage that process. No statesman wants his legacy, his personal bid for political immortality, to be swamped in a messy succession battle that could culminate in the party being dragged in a direction that might negate 10 years of hard work. Yet this Mbeki nightmare is innate to South Africa's system of executive presidency.
The ANC is a broad church of widely disparate elements - from the remnants of the New National Party at one end of the spectrum to the SACP at the other - united only in the pursuit of power. To capture the presidency is to broker that power among a largely supine array of vassals.
In spite of ingratiating siren songs from the likes of KZN leader Sbu Ndebele that Mbeki should have the third term from which the constitution currently excludes him, it is unlikely that Mbeki will take the controversial route of seeking a constitutional amendment. The president has said that he will leave at the end of his term, but that does not mean that he does not have every intention of leveraging his power to ensure that he has a simpatico successor.
To husband his legacy most effectively, Mbeki has to arrange the most appropriate person, someone who will dutifully burnish his memory and implement an agenda that has barely started to roll out, and over whom he might hope to exert continued influence. Call it presidency by proxy.
The one name that has come up several times as his preference is that of Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. This is where controversy erupts. There have been rumours for some time, which occasionally have exploded into print, of the nature of Mbeki's relationship with some of his Cabinet colleagues.
Frankly, it is no one's business what Mbeki's domestic arrangements** are. Except in one scenario: if there is an intimate personal relationship between the president and his potential successor, it is relevant to a debate which, although it will be decided within the ranks of the ANC, is important to every South African.
It was obvious that no one could hope to fill the seven-league boots of Nelson Mandela, which is why Mbeki so determinedly set out a different agenda, thus far only unevenly achieved. Now the country waits to see who will step into Mbeki's size-sevens, or whether they will be kicked aside for a pair of pumps.
With acknowledgement to William Saunderson-Meyer and The Natal Witness.
* Along with Dr R.W. Johnson, of the Great Intellectual's greatest fans and admirers.
** Frankly, there's too much knowledge carnal in the public debate these days.