Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Leon's Clarity
The Mail & Guardian carries a story on some very lucid commentary from exiting DA leader Tony Leon about Thabo Mbeki's 'unnanounced' bit to retain his position as ANC Party President for a third term. Leon commented that another party presidential term for Mbeki would be bad news for democracy in South Africa.
"And if that [new] president tries to be his own man or woman, the real prospect of two centres of national power would be ruinous indeed.

"It would be ruinous, because the state's already faltering capacity would stall further. It would be ruinous because turf wars would break out between these rival camps.

"Worst of all, Mr Mbeki's staying would set a grim precedent: he would undo many of the positive achievements to date of his presidency, playing into the hands of Afro-pessimists, who denounce our continent's leaders for failing to leave office when their time has passed.

"By contrast, what a fine example Nelson Mandela set us when he voluntarily stepped down as party leader in 1997 and as President in 1999. That is the finest precedent this fine president could set us; and that is the precedent I urge Mr Mbeki, in the interests of all South Africans, to emulate."
It's a very important consideration, and one that I think many ignore in the 'anyone-but-Zuma' rush. If Mbeki continued the party presidency, it would undoubtedly create two incredibly strong centres of power, given the structure of party politics in South Africa. As Mbeki says, it will also create an almost indelible perception of his successor being nothing more than a puppet.

Naturally, Mbeki will only feel like he is forced to make this decision should Zuma's populism be seen as a winnable Presidential force. One wonders if Leon would have made these comments unless he feels that the chances of Zuma being a real presidential option are thin. Perhaps he is looking to stir the proverbial pot. I think however, that these are insightful comments from a leader retiring after many years in politics, laying a warning that crosses party boundaries.

I was quite supportive of the strategy when it was mooted, in order for Mbeki to retain control over his successor, but Leon's comments have crystalised a few weeks of internal debate for me. It would be a simple solution for Mbeki-ites to retain his party presidency to retain a vice-like frip, but I'm becoming increasingly convinced that a compromise candidate is a wiser route. The prospects for real delivery being lost in ANC political infighting seem very likely.