Publication: Cape Times Issued: Date: 2004-10-21 Reporter: Barney Mthombothi

Who Succeeds Mbeki is too Serious a Matter to be Left to the ANC Alone - It Concerns All of Us



Cape Times

Date 2004-10-21


Barney Mthombothi

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One can understand the ANC's desperate desire to douse the fires that seem intent on engulfing the debate over who among a slew of very handsome pretenders should succeed Thabo Mbeki in a few years' time.

Three years - when Mbeki eventually steps down as ANC president - may seem a long way off. But the battle for his mantle has well and truly begun.

The debate could take on a life of its own, thus seriously undermining Mbeki's second term, still in its infancy. It could even create divisions in the party which his successor may find hard to bridge.

The ANC fears that if the country were to start talking about nothing else, Mbeki could become yesterday's man and his agenda could become history even before it got off the ground. It is therefore important for the party to stay on course and concentrate on the job at hand.

Talks of the future could mean dealing the incumbent out of the equation - people may start looking over his head towards the wide expanse that is the future.

They either want to control it - that is, throw their hats into the ring - or they want to know how they fit into that future, which means starting this early to figure out who among the contenders they should begin sidling up to.

Such feverish activity can only erode Mbeki's authority. Man is a selfish being. He likes planning - for himself and in good time too.

If they are going to have a debate, the ANC therefore wants to keep it neat, tidy and under control. We understand. But we are unfortunately at the mercy of democracy and democracy is a messy business. Once the genie is out of the bottle it is impossible to get it back in.

So the ANC is appealing for peace in the country, if not among its squabbling siblings. It is almost as though there had been a death in the family and the party were pleading for space or privacy to grieve. But the debate as to who will succeed Mbeki as ANC president is not a family affair. It concerns all of us.

We, the public, have to be involved - even if it means noisily gatecrashing the party. It is not for a few people to come to some "understanding" among themselves. It is our future that is at stake.

We are all prisoners of the constitution, the one that we are given to praise as the best document drafted by mankind. But it has flaws. At least the electoral system has.

The constitution has given us democracy, but has denied us the tools to practise it.

We elect all public officials, from local government to national parliament, and then it's bye-bye - they are gone. We never hear from them again until the next election when they come, like con artists grinning from ear to ear, to present us with yet another batch of promises to get our vote.

Democracy has not been assimilated into our way of life but has been reduced to an event - the act of casting a vote on election day. The people's public representatives do not continuously engage with them as to how that mandate should be exercised between elections. Floor-crossing is a symptom of this malaise.

There is no doubt that the current system does not work for the general populace. It leaves them without a lever to affect or influence the exercising of power.

They cannot enforce accountability. But the system works like a charm for those wielding the power. They can go about their business without the hindrance or irritation of public scrutiny.

It is therefore not surprising that Frederik van Zyl Slabbert's report on reforming the electoral system was tossed into the trash can even before the ink was dry. It was a subversive document. It said those in power were not accountable to the electorate, and were therefore having an easy ride.

It alerted people to a more effective way of exercising their rights. We cannot have that. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Our parliamentary system is understandably modelled on the Westminster form of government. But instead of a prime minister, we have a president, who combines the functions of prime minister and head of state.

But unlike most presidential systems around the world, our president is not elected directly by the voters. He does not stand for election as is the case in countries such as Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Germany, Indonesia, the US and so on, although his position is as powerful, if not more so.

He is elected by parliament, which means that the leader of the majority party becomes our president. The ANC has a lopsided majority in parliament, a situation that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Therefore, the leader of the party without question becomes the leader of the country.

That's why the debate over who succeeds Mbeki as ANC president is creating so much public interest. Such interest should be welcome, especially as we are constantly told that the public has had enough of politics.

There seems to be no apathy here. Electing the leader of the ANC is tantamount to choosing the president of the country.

The ANC has been quick to trumpet its democratic credentials and traditions, and how over the years it has managed to effect a seamless transition - almost as if to assure people they can handle it themselves.

However, there is one big difference - the ANC was in the wilderness then. It is in power now, holding the fates of millions in its hands.

It is no longer a movement minding its own business or waging an ineffective guerrilla war. What its leadership says or does now may decide whether people have something to eat or not, whether they have jobs - indeed whether they live or die. It is that serious. In the US, for instance, the difference between George Bush and Al Gore is as clear- cut as war and peace.

Those arguing that the ANC be left to its own devices are either naive and do not understand the changed circumstances, or they are exposing their undemocratic instincts. They are happy with the status quo. but the status quo does not exist anymore. All bets are off.

There was a great debate, and rightly so, when Mbeki stepped into what he was famously to refer to as Nelson Mandela's ugly shoes.

A book was even written predicting the calamity of a Mbeki presidency. Thankfully none of that has come to pass. The book sank like a stone. At least the writer took his own advice to heart and emigrated.

The interest this time is even greater because of the list of possible candidates. It is a formidable field.

Who succeeds Mbeki is too serious a matter to be left to the ANC. It is our business too. Let us have a robust debate by all means. And those who want the job should have the courage to show their hand. Enough of this shadow-boxing.

With acknowledgements to Barney Mthombothi and the Cape Times.