'Not with a Bang but a Whimper': The Fall of Thabo Mbeki
Hamill, James, Contemporary Review
FOR Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa, September 2008 was the best of times and the worst of times. On September 15th he presided over a signing ceremony in Harare which formalised the power sharing arrangement he had mediated between Zimbabwe's bitter enemies: Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). After the vitriol and scorn which had been heaped upon his 'quiet diplomacy' approach towards Zimbabwe, Mbeki now felt vindicated having delivered a deal - although hardly a rapprochement -which looked impossible during the state-directed violence and terror which had accompanied Mugabe's fraudulent re-election on June 27th, 2008. In the aftermath of the deal, and its inherent fragility notwithstanding. Mbeki might have been anticipating plaudits for his diplomatic prowess and even a triumphal end to his tenure as State President in April 2009. Yet a mere six days later he would announce his premature resignation from the presidency in a televised address to the nation having been unceremoniously removed from power by his own party, the African National Congress (ANC). This followed the decision of the National Working Committee (NWC) and the National Executive Committee (NEC), the ANC's two most senior bodies, to 'recall' him, the favoured jargon of the movement for dismissal. This 'recall' was the culmination of months, even years, of dissatisfaction with Mbeki's rule and it flowed from the belief that all personnel deployed in government are essentially ANC functionaries, who, however exalted their positions, serve in government solely at the pleasure of the ruling party. Mbeki was brutally reminded of that fact by the two votes on September 15th and 20th respectively. The Mbeki era formally ended on September 25th when the National Assembly elected ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe as the new State President. Although he has considerable ability and a strong intellect, Motlanthe is viewed as a caretaker president until the 2009 elections usher in the myriad uncertainties of a Jacob Zuma presidency. In the light of these events - comfortably the most traumatic and destabilising since the democratic breakthrough of 1994 - this article seeks to explain Thabo Mbeki's political demise. It also provides a useful opportunity to bring the wheel on Mbeki full circle, this author having written two articles for this journal on his rise to the presidency in October and November 1999.
Thabo Mbeki's downfall was a relatively protracted affair occurring in two stages between December 2007 and September 2008. The first stage was his removal from his position as president of the ANC itself in December 2007 at the organisation's 52nd national conference in Polokwane in Limpopo province. Mbeki was defeated by Jacob Zuma, his bitter political rival, with delegates preferring Zuma over Mbeki by a margin of almost two to one. From that point on Mbeki was a diminished political figure from whom power and authority rapidly drained away. Mbeki, who had devoted most of his life to the ANC, had succeeded Nelson Mandala as President in June 1999. Although he remained in office as State President after this defeat at Polokwane, his position was now extremely fragile. It was evident he no longer enjoyed the support of his own party, particularly the new party leadership with Zuma's allies making a clean sweep in the elections for the party's top six positions as well as dominating the newly elected NEC. Consequently, the phrase lame duck' became a ubiquitous feature of any discussion of Mbeki's situation. In retrospect, the immediate post-Polokwane period (at the very latest) would have been an opportune moment for Mbeki to announce his retirement. However, that now familiar Mbeki blend of hubris and self-deception caused him to opt for a 'business as usual' approach rooted in the fiction that nothing had fundamentally changed - a further example of the denialism which characterised his presidency. …