Change is the Only Constant

By Glenn Ashton · 2 Oct 2008

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Picture credit: nickzasphotos
Picture credit: nickzasphotos

So we have had a change in the guard in South Africa, engineered on shaky precepts but carried out smoothly and seamlessly, at least from a political perspective. However, the real issues have been obscured by the haste of the transition and the relentless blather of the chattering classes. Perhaps the time is ripe to draft some perspective on what really happened. 

It was common knowledge Thabo Mbeki was toast. As John Carlin pointed out a week after his departure, Mbeki should never have been president. Instead he should have been our greatest foreign minister ever under the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa. This was not to be. Instead Mbeki was raised to power, carried, cosseted in the arms of the liberation movement turned government of the day, and directly into the comfortable chair reserved for him in the Union Buildings by the outgoing Mandela government.

It was widely known and recognised that Mbeki was the details man behind the scenes. After all he had integrity and the ability to micromanage a compliant cadre towards a transition that shaped a working government apparatus. Mbeki succeeded in creating the structures and in managing the shift to a post apartheid administration with fair success. 

He was certainly assisted by smart folk like Trevor Manuel, Pravin Gordhan, Maria Ramos and Lindiwe Sisulu all supported by a loyal inner circle and guarded by the presidential bulldog, Essop 'bark bark' Pahad. But reliance on this select inner circle alienated the left through perceived and actual threats. Ultra leftists were denigrated through insinuation and innuendo by this centrist administration. 

This economically conservative stance abetted the eventual eclipse of this inner circle through the rise of the leftward leaning and populist faction of the party, in reaction to the use of perceived legal legerdemain by the ruling faction.

Certainly Mbeki also lost the plot on some important details. He totally blew the HIV and Aids issue, this we know. He, together with his inner circle, were duped by the international arms industry, ably abetted by compliant commissar comrades who gravitated toward to the roots of corruption that ride the coat tails of the military industrial complex. The arms mess happened partly through naivete, partly through ill-intent.

But the crown prince to the kingship of Mandela, who entered the stage of leadership as an enigma and left under a cloud was not the best choice of leader for the time and place that was post democratic South Africa. Steeped in the ways of mainstream economic policy, circumstantially and ideologically beholden to the Washington consensus and the demands of capital, Mbeki the exile never really saw his way clear to liberate the majority that carried the ANC to power.

With a leadership engrossed in dreams of an African renaissance, the nightmare of life for a large section of the electorate continues to be their yoke and theirs alone. If platitudes could feed, house and nurture a nation, Mbeki would have been canonised by now. Instead he is out of a job.

But even if the man was incompetent, which he clearly was not, was it correct to ditch him in this manner and at this time? 

The world is in a dangerous space. The global capital market is struggling under pressure unprecedented since the great depression, engendered through reckless market deregulation, speculative money coupled to the cycles of bubble economics. Energy, food and capital are becoming daily dearer and rarer. Environmental degradation, water shortages and climate change further threaten stability. While a handful of people have become obscenely rich the entire consumptive boom has been subsidised by citizens, at our collective cost. 

In light of these realities, the timing of our leadership change clearly presented a risky proposition for South Africa. It would have harmed nobody, politically or otherwise, to have let Mbeki complete his term. While his replacement, Kgalema Motlanthe is a good and wise man, probably the best for the job at hand, was it really necessary to oust Mbeki when he was ousted, or even for the reasons that he was ousted? Strong arguments have been made both ways, usually citing the wrong reasons.

It can be argued that the rapidity of this changing of the guard was a sign of political immaturity. While the ANC has in some ways adapted from being a resistance movement to becoming an integrated democratic party, it still has failed to make this transition in some fundamentally crucial ways.

Perhaps most important of these is the failure of the ANC to shift away from groupthink. Whilst organisational unity and party discipline are essential in times of insurgency, there is a need to encourage the emergence of a broad vision in a heterogeneous and free society, epitomised by the broad church of the ANC. That this has not been able to blossom is an indictment.

Whilst debate may occur, the underlying organisational rigidity as practised by Chief Whips, by party leaders and the NEC under Mbeki precluded and undermined the free expression of fully independent and original thought, highlighting some of the historical Stalinist tendencies in structures of discourse that the ANC acquired in exile.

Certainly not all voices have been silenced – the old warhorses such as Kader Asmal and Ben Turok continued to speak the truth to power, and to anybody else willing to listen – but what has happened is that the vibrancy of the ANC and its multi-hued character has been tarnished by the tawdry and impatient political opportunism that has arisen in reaction to Mbeki's closed inner circle and centrist policies.

While the left wing of the movement was vilified and isolated it continues to resonate with a significant proportion of the electorate. Surely the time has clearly come for a more leftward leaning government in South Africa if we are to have any hope of attacking the GINI coefficient and building a more equal society? Was it wise or strategic to simply chuck Mbeki and his faction out and was it done correctly?

On the one hand it was not. South Africa suffered through this demonstration of  political impetuousity, particularly given the external background turmoil. Trevor Manuels resignation swayed our market at a time we really did not need it. The entire changeover, although smooth and organised, did not engender trust in the eyes of international finance. And more is the pity, for if we had managed to hang in there for a few more months, South Africa Inc. could have shown itself as a safe haven, a calm harbour in global economic uncertainty. That opportunity was lost.

What we gained is a transitional government that will bide us through and may even perhaps do us the favour of starting to plot out some meaningful platforms of change, something the ruling party urgently needs to do. The political shenanigans post Polokwane and over the past fortnight have cost the party votes, particularly in urban areas. 

However if the ANC manages to clearly demonstrate its intentions as a populist, leftward leaning party that shows some real potential to uplift people, then it may be in a stronger position than it would have been in an ordinary electoral process. Ordinarily the ANC would have had to tout a totally new government to the nation at a perhaps even uneasier economic time, in a murky future. The change has occurred with a swiftness and Machiavellian intrigue one would have suspected of Mbeki but which instead snared him.

So while the past fortnight in South Africa has been an historic watershed, it has, in true South African fashion, shown us both our good and our bad sides, leaving a mixed legacy. Now it is up to the ruling party to really lead by letting the people get on with it and make this country great. The details can be hacked out by setting aside centrist, closed governance structures. We, the people, must govern!

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at www.ekogaia.org.

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