A Wounded Presidency

President Motlanthe has a tough mandate: to heal a broken party and hold back an economic downturn
Africa Confidential

The soft-spoken Kgalema Motlanthe, elevated from the Deputy Presidency of the African National Congress to the Presidency of South Africa, faces a tough job. Amid bitterness, Thabo Mbeki was forced to resign, taking half the cabinet with him.The party’s divisions are deepening still further; world markets are jittery – but at least the gold price is up.

Motlanthe quickly put together a new cabinet, including some of the initial resigners such as Finance Minister Trevor Manuel. Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka refused to be part of the new cabinet. When it was reported initially that Manuel and his Deputy, Jabu Moleketi, had resigned, South Africa’s All Share Stock Index fell 3% and the rand dropped 1.7% against the United States dollar.

Moving forwards
Addressing the nation, Motlanthe said that South Africa is emerging from ‘a week of uncertainty and doubt, hurt and anger’. Once the ANC’s 88-member National Executive Committee (NEC) had decided to force out Mbeki, the country had ‘no choice but to move forward’. Ex-President Nelson Mandela, who rarely intervenes in politics, said: ‘You are a quiet, firm and principled leader, one who puts reason above emotions and one who seeks to unite rather than divide.’ Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has called ANC President Jacob Zuma an embarrassment, said: ‘Many people would not be too embarrassed to have [Motlanthe] as head of state.’ The Archbishop also spoke of Mbeki’s untimely ousting: ‘The way of retribution leads to a banana republic.’

The main opposition leader, Helen Zille of the Democratic Alliance, said Motlanthe was ‘one of the ANC’s most level-headed’ leaders. Business Leadership South Africa, including top listed companies, foreign investors and public enterprises, said it was ‘confident that domestic and international investors should not be concerned about the direction and stability of the country’. Motlanthe himself admitted that there was a crisis; Zuma said it had been invented by the local media, opposition parties, political analysts and academics.

We understand that Zuma spoke personally to senior members of Mbeki’s cabinet, asking them not to resign. Most of Mbeki’s loyalists did so anyway. Zuma and ANC General Secretary Gwede Mantashe looked adrift as they hastily convened a press conference to reassure South Africa and the markets. As it was in progress, more pro-Mbeki ministers, including Deputy Defence Minister Mluleki George, announced their resignations. Mantashe admitted that the pro-Zuma ANC leadership had been caught off guard. Having signalled their independence, Manuel and five other ministers then said they would carry on. Manuel told Britain’s BBC that more Mbeki loyalists would probably quit and said he believed that Mbeki ‘should have seen through his term until March or April next year’. His Deputy, Moleketi, and other Mbeki loyalists refused to serve.

Oddly, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the most reviled member of Mbeki’s cabinet and his protégee, did not resign. Neither did Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the New National Party leader, whose career Mbeki resuscitated by appointing him to the cabinet. Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, one of Mbeki’s preferred successors, also stayed put.

Zuma and his more militant supporters had wanted former Parliamentary Speaker and ANC Chairwoman Baleka Mbete as Interim President. She was expected to ensure that the corruption charges against Zuma would be irrevocably dropped. The backlash against Mbeki’s firing has moved the Zuma camp to go for Kgalema Motlanthe as a unifier, rather than the partisan Mbete, whose appointment may have caused even more strife in the ANC and in the markets; she is now Motlanthe’s Deputy President.

Zuma and Motlanthe are reassuring people that there will be no major policy changes, with the ministers for Foreign Affairs, Trade and Industry, and Education stilll in office. Health Minister Tshabalala-Msimang, who has suggested garlic, African potatoes and beetroot as cures for HIV/AIDS, has moved into a largely administrative job as Minister in the Presidency, kept on thanks to her husband, former ANC Treasurer Mendi Msimang. Barbara Hogan, formerly Chairwoman of parliament’s Finance Committee, has been welcomed as new Health Minister by business, health professionals and AIDS activists. She worked with Motlanthe in the early 1990s in Gauteng Province.

Justice Minister Brigitte Mabandla was also reshuffled. The Zuma camp did not want to be seen as pressuring the judiciary by appointing one of its partisans as justice minister, and accepted instead Enver Surty, a lawyer, who has been neutral in the Mbeki-Zuma battle. He is likely to keep out of the Zuma case.

Motlanthe also shifted Mbeki’s ineffectual Police Minister, Charles Nqakula, to Defence, bringing in the pro-Zuma Nathi Mthethwa, former ANC Chief Whip in parliament, as Police Minister. Motlanthe still needs a deputy finance minister to manage the 2010 Football World Cup, a job done by Moleketi, Manuel’s former deputy, until he quit.

Secretary General Mantashe said that the last thing the party wants is an early election. It must convince members, including Mbeki’s critics, that he was not forced out vindictively. ‘Recalling a leader is not punishment or being vindictive, it is a reflection of the maturity of our democracy,’ said Zweli Mkhize, ANC KwaZulu Natal Provincial Chairman and one of Zuma’s closest advisors. Zuma is touring the country to explain why the NEC sacked Mbeki. Many members wonder why their branches and provinces were not consulted.

Zuma’s gloating supporters
Yet Motlanthe spoke generously of Mbeki in his acceptance address to parliament: ‘For all that he has done for South Africa, for our continent and for the advancement of the global community, we remain forever indebted.’ That does not stop Zuma’s supporters from bragging about their triumph and seeking to purge the government and ANC. Julius Malema, ANC Youth League President and a Zuma acolyte, gloated about the ANCYL’s role in Mbeki’s downfall. There are purges in the provinces and towns. Mbhazima Shilowa, the Gauteng Premier, jumped before he was pushed. Free State Premier Beatrice Marshoff will probably be told to resign the moment she returns from abroad this week. The Mbeki-supporting Premiers of Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape and Northwest face the axe.

Zuma wants to stop the provincial purges, which must destabilise the ANC.  Above all, he fears government paralysis if senior civil servants who support Mbeki leave en masse. Many, including Frank Chikane, Director General in the Office of the Presidency, are not renewing their contracts in disgust at Mbeki’s firing and reluctance to work in a Zuma-led government. Motlanthe has asked Joel Netshitenzhe, head of policy coordination, to stay on. A close Mbeki ally, Netshitenzhe was reelected to the NEC at the December conference which voted out Mbeki. His resignation could potentially trigger a mass exodus of senior civil servants.

Meanwhile, Zuma’s allies in parliament have decided to block attempts to recover money fraudulently claimed by more than 100 MPs as ‘travel expenses’.  The state will be the poorer by 6 million rand (US$727,000).

The ANC’s allies, the SA Congress of Trade Unions and the SA Communist Party, are demanding to be ‘full partners’ rather than junior partners as under Mbeki. The SACP’s Blade Nzimande says it wants more of its members on the ANC’s candidate list for the 2009 elections, and more appointed as national and provincial ministers, mayors and local councillors, with a ‘deployment committee’ to select its people. It has just held a policy conference, ahead of an alliance summit with Cosatu; Nzimande says the summit should be able to veto government policy.

Economic growth is slowing. Inflation and costs are rising, and power shortages are undermining production. High unemployment and poverty persist, and service delivery remains poor – but ANC supporters want urgent redistribution. All this amid the global financial disaster, a powerful constraint on change. Motlanthe has promised to steer the same economic path as Mbeki; he told parliament: ‘We will intensify the all-round effort to accelerate the rate of growth and job creation, and ensure that the benefits of growth are equally shared by all our people.’ Cosatu’s General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, wants to abolish inflation targeting, which his organisation and the SACP blame for high interest rates. Yet their backing for Zuma is unlikely to give them much influence on economic policy. The government will not risk unsettling the markets even more.

Congratulating Motlanthe, Pieter Mulder, leader of the small, white Freedom Front Plus, told an Afrikaner tale. Two farmers, scared by hearing a roaring lion nearby, accidentally hitch the lion to their wagon. When day breaks, they do not know how to get rid of the lion. That, said Mulder, should warn Zuma that he may find it hard after next year’s election to dislodge Motlanthe. Hogging universally positive headlines, Motlanthe has momentarily eclipsed Zuma.

A poll by the research company TNS said 70% of respondents thought Mbeki did a good job as President; only a third thought Zuma was doing a good job as ANC President; 43% said Motlanthe did well as the ANC’s deputy leader. The poll found that three-quarters of those asked, including 58% of blacks, believed Zuma should stand trial for corruption. (The poll was taken in urban areas among people with landlines, who may be disproportionately well-off and white.)

Zuma’s coalition was united by its dislike of Mbeki, who is gone. Zuma discouraged efforts to oust Mbeki, fearing he would inherit a divided party, unprepared for a general election, but was overruled by his militants. Then he planned for the appointment of his ally Baleka Mbete as interim president. The extent of the backlash against Mbeki’s forced exit surprised the Zuma camp, which was forced to agree to Motlanthe, who could hold the ANC together.

A poll for the Sunday Times showed that about 26% of those surveyed said they would vote for the Democratic Alliance, traditionally a white party, if an election were held immediately. Some 27% would vote for the ANC, with about the same proportion undecided. (This poll too was of urban residents with landlines.)

By no means all those in Zuma’s coalition want him as president of South Africa. Those who do include the ANCYL, the pro-Zuma Black Economic Empowerment business oligarchs, the SACP and trade unionists, and those ANC leaders under investigation for corruption by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), who think their cases would be quashed, too, if Zuma’s is thrown out.

Communist dreams
Some Cosatu and the SACP members dream of a unifying ANC leader who will be pro-poor. They see serious weaknesses in Zuma as well as in other top contenders for the presidency such as Cyril Ramaphosa, Mathews Phosa and Tokyo Sexwale. Motlanthe was the choice of those who want the ANC to remain united, rather than to put Zuma into the presidency. He is also a member of parliament, which is necessary for an aspiring president; the others, including Zuma, are not.

Motlanthe’s presidency will last six months, enough to show his credentials not only as a unifying figure, but as a source of new ideas, energy and principle, against the divisive potential of a populist Zuma. Those, especially the Youth League, who want Zuma for president will watch Motlanthe for signs of upstaging their hero. He must unify his party while not outshining Zuma too much, but he is unlikely to restrain the NPA’s efforts to charge Zuma again.

On 30 September, the NPA’s Spokesman, Tlali Tlali, confirmed that it had applied to appeal against the ruling that sprang Zuma free on a technicality. It claimed that Judge Chris Nicholson had no grounds to advocate the establishment of an arms deal inquiry or to comment on Mbeki’s decision to dismiss Zuma as Deputy President in 2005 (AC Vol 49 No 19). The 12 charges against Zuma’s alleged fraud related to the multi-billion rand government arms deal. The NPA argues that Mbeki’s dismissal of Zuma had nothing to do with that case, so was unsubtantiated and irrelevant.

The ANC leadership had thought Zuma’s legal problems would go away when they ousted Mbeki, but they are increasing. Mantashe had said: ‘The National Prosecuting Authority’s decision to appeal the judgment has become a worry’, and a point of division for the ANC. One motive for firing Mbeki fast was the fear that, in his last days in office, he would use state resources to attack his political enemies. A commission to investigate corruption related to the arms deal could bring down Zuma and other ANC leaders, but few think that Mbeki himself has much to fear.

Africa Confidential understands that parliament’s Justice, Safety and Security Committee and the National Council of Provinces Committee met the staff of the NPA’s elite crime fighting unit, the Scorpions, on 1 October to discuss the unit’s future. The Scorpions brought the corruption charges against Zuma.

Mbeki has approached the Constitutional Court to ask that Judge Nicholson’s findings be declared unconstitutional and set aside. He says that the judgement was ‘vexatious, scandalous and prejudicial’, cost him his job and damaged his good name and reputation. Zuma is opposing Mbeki’s bid to clear his name. If Mbeki should win, his sacking by the NEC would be shown to be based on false assumptions, and therefore void. Whatever the courts say, Mbeki’s job is gone. Yet whether Zuma will take it over is still in question.