Publication: The Star Issued: Date: 2004-10-15 Reporter: Jovial Rantao

The Thabo Mbeki Succession Debate



The Star

Date 2004-10-15


Jovial Rantao

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In another year or two, President Thabo Mbeki should get into winding down mode, preparing to leave the highest office in the land. When this happens, Mbeki's influence on South African government would start to wane.

On the other hand, the individual who then becomes is on course to be the third democratically elected president will gradually become more powerful and influential.

It would seem, however, that South Africa might not reach that stage, at least if some of the debates that have started within ANC circles are anything to go by.

The debate on whether or not Thabo Mbeki should have a third term has started.

Essentially, it has come down to two debates in one, albeit with the same outcome.

The first part of the debate is around the Mbeki presidency. Discussions have started in earnest inside the ANC, with one persuasion, particularly from some ANC quarters in KwaZulu-Natal, saying that Mbeki has done so well as president that he should be allowed a third term. One reason, among others, has been that there is no clear candidate to succeed Mbeki.

The second argument is that Mbeki should be allowed to take the ambitious programmes that he has spearheaded - to rid Africa of poverty, despots and civil wars - for some distance.

For this to happen, two-thirds of parliament would have to pass a constitutional amendment.

The second part of the debate is that Mbeki should vacate the highest office but return for a third term as ANC president. This approach seeks to separate the political leadership from that of the president of the country.

In the South African context, this move will create two centres of power - the office of the president of South Africa, and the office of the president of the ANC.

Just over five years ago, the ANC decided that it would stop a practice whereby the leader of the party in a province automatically becomes the premier. This was designed to end in-fighting and bloodletting for the position of leader of the ANC because this was seen as a stepping stone to bigger things.

While the appointment of premiers by the president of the ANC has stopped the internal strife, it has, in other instances, created two centres of power, leading to rising tensions in the provinces.

This remains a serious problem in the Free State where the provincial political leadership took some time before warming up to Beatrice Maarshof, the premier appointed by Mbeki.

If Mbeki returned for a third term as president of the ANC, it would mean that he will continue to exercise massive control over a government led by his party.

In fact, he would de facto enjoy a third term as president of South Africa without necessitating a change in the constitution.

Anyone who is the head of an ANC-led government will always have to defer and consult with the ANC on major decisions.

Translated this means that whoever replaces Mbeki as president will continually have to consult with him. In this way, Mbeki will continue to exercise enormous power and influence in decisions taken by the government. He will control the ANC and therefore control the president.

So the new president of South Africa who will not be the president of the ANC will be a weak president - a de jure president, to use the term used by Nelson Mandela in the twilight of his presidency.

It can be argued that in the current political dispensation, Mbeki also refers his decisions to the ANC national executive committee or the party's top six officials. However, the reality is that he does so with the overwhelming power brought by his two high offices - president of the ANC and president of the Republic of South Africa.

Many in the ANC have found it difficult to disagree with presidential suggestions or differ with presidential comment. A presidential suggestion or comment unintentionally becomes a presidential order, a decision only challenged by the brave.

The ANC Youth League, on the other hand, is not having anything to do with the two-in-one debate.

The organisation has come out clearly and said that Mbeki should, when his time comes, retreat into the shadows and Jacob Zuma, the current deputy president, should take over. This would support the persuasion that says Mbeki would be mad to even contemplate a third term, given him being opposed to the practice elsewhere.

Part of this argument makes sense. Mbeki should practice what he preaches. He has done well as the deputy president and later as president. When his time comes he must step go peacefully and allow fellow ANC comrades to take from where he has left.

There is no doubt that Mbeki will continue to play a crucial role in the politics of this country, Africa and the world.

With acknowledgements to Jovial Rantao and The Star.