Coup de'Grace in South Africa: Mbeki's Night of the Long Knives

Written by Bill Hansen
Published September 24, 2008

The men bearing the long knives which bespeak political assassination came for South African President, Thabo Mbeki, last week. The African National Congress' party mandarins had met privately and voted to tell Mbeki he had to go immediately, even though he still had another year to run on his second term. The already mortally wounded Mbeki was put out of his misery; his political life terminated.

This political coup de'grace signaled the final victory of the party faction loyal to current ANC party leader, Jacob Zuma. Zuma, Mbeki's long time rival for ANC dominance, had been the Deputy President until dismissed by the President several years ago. Mbeki's excuse then was that Zuma was under fire for corruption and other malfeasance. However, it was clear to observers of the ANC's internecine conflicts that Mbeki had used Zuma's legal troubles, which may well have been valid, as an excuse to rid himself of a rival.

The charismatic and voluble Zuma, unfortunately, did not go quietly into his political good night. He first tended to his problems which resulted in an acquittal on rape charges and then managed to have the corruption charges dropped.

The roots of Mbeki's demise lie in the very nature of the dominant ANC. Founded early in the twentieth century, the ANC was a sort of a lobby for "native" interests. The word "native" was in its original name. On more than one occasion in the early years it was virtually moribund. Revived in the early forties by a bunch of Young Turks led by Anton Lembede, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo the ANC gradually radicalized and expanded its membership. After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1961 it was banned.

From there the ANC opted for an armed struggle. Some members under Tambo were sent into exile to organize external support. One of these was the then twenty year old Thabo Mbeki, the son of a long time Communist Party member and ANC activist. Mbeki spent the next thirty years in exile in ANC offices in LOndon, Moscow, East Berlin or Lusaka; all in the paranoid, cocoon-like world of conspiratorial revolutionary politics.

The other wing, under Mandela, stayed home and went underground as Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). Soon discovered by the security forces of the apartheid government, most MK members, including Mandela, were tried for treason and sent to prison.

Internally there was an amorphous underground MK wing, supplemented by a wide variety of independent, activist organizations and trade unions. The external wing, heavily influenced by the Soviet Union, developed a very disciplined, hierarchical and secretive form of organization. In both politics and organizational culture, the internal and external wings grew apart united only by their opposition to apartheid and the white only South African government.

With only a few exceptions, by the late seventies the ANC had become the "only" opposition force and, therefore, included a wide variety groups with different agendas, cultures, class, social and ethnic outlooks. Again, the one thing that kept them united was their opposition to apartheid. Once the apartheid regime collapsed it was inevitable that these different fault lines would find expression in different intra-party factions. Unity directed at a common enemy disappears with the demise of the enemy.

Paradoxically, despite the years of Soviet influence and his Communist background, the worldly, intellectual and sophisticated Mbeki returned to South Africa in the early nineties to become the epitome of the bourgeois pragmatist. His economic and social policies were quite suitable to the interests of both local and international capital. The "left", in the context of South African politics were the internal forces - trade unions, black consciousness, various social and community groups - that were actually instrumental in overthrowing the apartheid regime.

As a matter of fact, Mbeki's compatibility with bourgeois interests was not truly paradoxical. As the world has witnessed over the last twenty years, the Communist Party nomanklatura, the state class that ruled the Soviet Union and its satellites, made a seamless transition to individual capitalists and managers of the capitalist state as well. So did Mbeki and most of his colleagues. It was the internal communists, trade unionists and other social and community activists who represented the disenchanted "voice of the people". Jacaob Zuma captured the loyalty of this group and it was they who were the support blocs that allowed Zuma's victory over Mbeki for ANC party leadership last December.

Mbeki's tenure as president has been checkered. Looked at from one point of view - what is called the World Bank/IMF/Washington Consensus - his nine years in office have been marked by significant successes. The South African economy has been growing at an annual rate of more than 5%. In other words, the rich folk, both black and white, are doing quite well.

With a population one-third that of Nigeria, South Africa has a GDP more than five times larger. Per capita wealth generation in South Africa is far greater than in Nigeria. A significant black middle class has developed and, if truth be told, a not insignificant black upper class. It should also be pointed out that in South Africa there is actual wealth generation, not simply the theft through prebendal corruption of state controlled oil rents as in Nigeria.

The other side of this success story tells us that job growth in South Africa has been insignificant. I recently read a news story about the growth of white poverty in South Africa; something unthinkable under Verwoed, Vorster, Botha and DeKlerk. However, this white poverty pales (sorry, but no pun intended) in comparison to the growth in black poverty. The gap between rich and poor has actually widened - and widened significantly - since the ANC came to power more than fifteen years ago.

Many, many people who voted for the ANC with hopes for a far better life were left impoverished and forgotten in the townships. It was these people who flocked to the populist banner of Jacob Zuma. Zuma has promised jobs, housing, food and self-respect. Whether he can deliver - or will even try - on these promises is an entirely different question.

In the meantime Mbeki has resigned and, at latest count, so have eleven of his twenty-two ministers. This portends a serious split within the ANC. What we are witnessing is a re-alignment of South African politics. No longer is it a simple question of black and white. Now it's more and more becoming one of rich and poor. The ANC might very well break up into separate factions that will eventually coalesce, one hopes, into more or less class-based parties occupying various places on the spectrum from left to right.

There seems to me to be little chance that South Africa will be riven, like Nigeria, by ethno-national politics. There is only one "ethnic-based" party in the parliament, the Zulu, cultural nationalist Inkhata Freedom Party. Their standing will be undercut significantly by Zuma's predicted election. Zuma is, himself, a Zulu and South African nationalist politics have never been ethnically based.

South Africa remains a work in progress, but I see the events of the past week as having more positive than negative possibilities. There's little question that the ANC will win the next election, but it bodes well for democratic governance that it's overwhelming power has been diminished. A split will diminish it even more...and that, I think, will be good for the people of South Africa.

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
Procurement Consultant
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